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RFTA budget burning as board stalls

Faced with a budget crisis that threatens the long-term existence of the valley’s bus service, the Roaring Fork Transit Authority’s board of directors remains fractured over how to solve the problem.

For the third straight month, the RFTA board decided Thursday to delay a decision on how to work itself out of the tough financial situation. Some board members acknowledge privately that seeking a sales tax increase from voters in November is probably out of the question now.

The latest stumbling block to plotting a course was the city of Aspen’s insistence that an outside auditor be hired to make sure RFTA is running as efficiently as possible.

Aspen Mayor and RFTA board member Helen Klanderud said the Aspen council feels an exam by a consultant is necessary to show voters all options were explored before seeking a sales tax increase.

“An election too soon could end up in defeat,” Klanderud said.

But Snowmass Village Councilman and RFTA board member Arnie Mordkin said the exam is really an example of Aspen trying to micro-manage the valleywide bus agency.

“Get out of running RFTA,” Mordkin told Klanderud. He urged the full RFTA board not to allow one jurisdiction to “dictate” what the organization does. His use of the word “dictate” drew an objection from Klanderud.

At the heart of the dispute is the structure of RFTA’s governing board. Each of the governments that belong to the organization appoints one of its elected officials to RFTA’s board of directors. There are representatives from Aspen, Snowmass Village, Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, as well as Pitkin and Eagle counties.

The board members meet once per month but action often gets delayed because representatives feel they must get direction from their own boards. RFTA operates like the United Nations, except meetings are only held once per month. Swift action is next to impossible.

In addition to the structural challenges, different RFTA directors have different opinions on how to solve the budget crisis. Some members have pressed for the last couple of months to take a hatchet to expenses, but nobody seems to want to pull the trigger on service cuts.

What may be in jeopardy is construction of a trail between Emma and Glenwood Springs and a massive plan to modernize the bus system.

Aspen Councilman and RFTA alternate Terry Paulson said the organization should concentrate on finding revenues for the current bus system and stop pursuing “dreams” like building the trail and building a Bus Rapid Transit system or BRT.

The BRT is essentially an ultramodern version of RFTA that would feature a handful of high-tech bus stops where customers would purchase tickets in advance and scan them as they load. Buses would make fewer stops in the valley so riders would reach their destinations quicker.

The vision is to create a bus system that competes better with private vehicles.

Paulson said it seemed “unrealistic” to pursue funding for those dreams “when the foundation is crumbling.”

At the prompting of other board members over the last three months, the RFTA staff has been forced to look at numerous budget scenarios with and without spending on trail construction and with budget cuts.

But the majority of board members seemed to indicate Thursday they don’t want to consider drastic cuts in service or give up trails or the Bus Rapid Transit system.

Pitkin County Commission and RFTA board chairwoman Dorothea Farris objected that giving up on trail construction and the BRT would “gut two-thirds” of what the organization is supposed to be.

Basalt Councilwoman and RFTA board member Jacque Whitsitt said the board should stick to its vision despite tough economic times. “We keep coming back and rehashing these vision things,” she said.

So the vision stayed intact Thursday, but the method of paying for it remains unresolved. The board set a somewhat cloudy course on the issue of an exam by an outside consultant. They voted 5-1 to direct Dan Blankenship, RFTA’s chief executive officer, to study how much it would cost for such an outside review and how soon it could be done. He will report back to the board at the May meeting. Whitsitt cast the lone vote against looking into hiring an outside “hatchet man.”

No formal decision was made on whether or not to place a sales tax hike on the November ballot for the towns and counties already in RFTA.

Meanwhile, projections by RFTA Chief Financial Officer Heather Copp showed RFTA could have a $1.32 million deficit next year just in bus operations.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.


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