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RFTA faces cash crisis

The valley’s bus agency is staring at a budget crisis due to decreased sales-tax revenues and a decline in riders for the first time in at least a decade.

“What we are finding out is revenues are down by a significant amount,” RFTA General Manager Dan Blankenship informed the board of directors Thursday. “This is one of those times when everything came together to push us over the edge.”

RFTA, the agency that operates bus service between Glenwood Springs and Aspen, saw its sales-tax revenues drop 2.65 percent below the budgeted amount through April.

A bigger hit came at the fare boxes. Valley ridership was down 1.5 percent through May and fare revenues were down 5.6 percent.

Blankenship said this is the first drop in rider fares that he’s witnessed in a decade with RFTA. He blamed most of the decline in decreased tourism in the upper valley during last ski season.

“If these trends continue, projected 1999 revenue could be down as much as $600,000 below projections,” Blankenship warned in a memo.

But he told the board he doesn’t think the picture is quite that bleak. Pitkin County number crunchers expect sales-tax revenues to match expectations for the rest of the year, and Blankenship said ridership numbers bounced back in June.

By deferring some capital expenditures and achieving some operating efficiencies, the budget shortfall could be whittled below $200,000 by the end of the year, he said.

The RFTA staff considered several options to offset the rest of the deficit, including raising pass prices 25 percent, cutting service, dipping into reserves and asking local governments for more money.

But it didn’t appear Thursday that riders will have to shell out more to board a bus.

RFTA board member and Aspen Mayor Rachel Richards said she was “loath” to even consider charging riders more.

“I would not want to raise fares in the face of declining ridership,” she said.

RFTA board member and Pitkin County Commissioner Leslie Lamont said higher fares were her least favorite approach and cutting service, a close second among things to avoid.

Blankenship acknowledged that raising fares 25 percent would result in an estimated 9 percent decrease in ridership. Some people simply wouldn’t pay higher costs.

Lamont said she would like RFTA to discuss its funding crisis with the Elected Officials Transportation Committee, a consortium of upvalley governments with funds to spend on transit issues.

Richards countered that going to local governments to be bailed out financially is just a quick fix that doesn’t address RFTA’s long-term funding challenges.

She said she favors having RFTA dip into its $2 million reserve fund to handle the shortfall, then come up with a plan to replenish that fund over the next 18 months.

Richards said it is also vital for RFTA’s board to “spend the real time” looking at next year’s budget and the long-term direction of the agency. That should include looking at what service should be retained and tough decisions about fares.

Ultimately, the board decided it couldn’t make a decision on how to handle this year’s projected shortfall until a future meeting. Only five, or about half, of the voting members showed up for the meeting in Basalt yesterday, hampering the decision making.


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