RFTA eyes tough budget decisions | AspenTimes.com

RFTA eyes tough budget decisions

Heather McGregor

The Roaring Fork Transit Agency is preparing its budget for 2000, and it’s already in the hole by a half-million dollars.

In the next two months, RFTA board members must decide how to make up the difference with a combination of fare increases, service cuts, more money from local governments and borrowing from budget reserves.

The options were laid out in a RFTA board meeting Thursday in Glenwood Springs, but the decisions won’t be made until the board holds an all-day retreat Oct. 7 in Carbondale.

A 3 percent cost-of-living wage increase for RFTA workers was the only decision made yesterday. That’s less than the 4 percent increase given in recent years, but more accurately reflects inflation and other economic indicators in the past year, according to RFTA General Manager Dan Blankenship.

“We want to be as generous as we can be. But it would be a disservice to give people huge raises and then be forced to lay people off this winter,” Blankenship said.

RFTA’s 1999 budget is also in trouble, and the board approved a $440,000 transfer from reserves to cover shortfalls.

The 1999 problems arose when projections for modest growth in fares and sales tax revenues were leveled by a winter of crummy snow, which hurt ridership and local commerce.

The same problems are causing the $500,000 shortfall in 2000.

And that’s throwing in an assumption of a 4.4 percent growth in sales tax – the amount projected by Pitkin County, where a transit-dedicated sales tax helps fund RFTA.

“If we don’t do that, we’ve got to address these cuts head-on, right now,” Blankenship said.

He is betting on the sales tax, and waiting to see how the valley’s voters react to a Regional Transportation Authority and taxing district in a May 2000 election.

The $500,000 gap will likely be a direct hit for riders, either through fares or service.

A 25 percent fare increase would yield $181,000 more in revenues, and lead to an estimated 7 percent drop in ridership, Blankenship said.

Board members said that should be the last option considered.

“You should do everything possible to avoid a fare increase,” said Helen Klanderud of Aspen.

Riders have already told RFTA that fares are high enough, and research done by the city of Aspen shows that a three-person carpool is cheaper than bus fare.

RFTA planner Mike Davis is in the midst of a detailed study on standards of service.

RFTA’s present level of service compares quite well to similar systems elsewhere in the country. But the agency wants to set numeric standards to determine which routes are the most productive.

“If you have no standards, everything is on the chopping block,” Blankenship said.

The agency may also approach local governments for an increase their subsidies for the bus system.

“We can’t sustain service without other forms of revenue,” Blankenship said.

“And we can’t balance the budget by trimming around the edges. We will have to make major cuts, such as scaling back service to Glenwood Springs, or even El Jebel,” he said.

Borrowing from RFTA’s operating reserves may also be a way to fully or partially deal with the shortfall. After the transfer to cover 1999 shortfalls, the reserve balance is $2 million.

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