RFTA favors testing voters on $100M expansion | AspenTimes.com

RFTA favors testing voters on $100M expansion

ROARING FORK VALLEY ” Roaring Fork Valley voters likely will be asked to approve a 0.4 percent sales tax increase in November to fund an expansion of the bus system and keep it financially fit for the next 12 years.

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s (RFTA) board of directors charted a course Thursday that could phase in nearly $62.5 million in capital improvements and boost operating revenues by about $37 million between 2009 and 2017.

For RFTA customers, the $100 million expansion would mean more buses making nonstop trips between downvalley towns and upper valley jobs and ski areas. New bus stations would be more inviting and use high-tech information systems to track buses. Parking would be expanded by a modest amount. Lanes and intersections on Highway 82 would be tweaked to reduce the travel time for buses and make it more competitive with traveling by private vehicle.

“This is a huge first step today,” said Ralph Trapani, a former engineer for the

Colorado Department of Transportation who is now a transportation consultant and supporter of RFTA’s expansion plan.

Although valley voters approved a sales tax dedicated to RFTA in 2004, the agency is facing a crisis. Annual ridership soared to about 4.5 million last year. Further growth this winter challenged the agency’s ability to meet demands. Passengers were forced to stand on buses during the busiest times.

RFTA planners and consultants have worked for two years on an expansion plan called Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). The first phase will feature 21 additional buses to increase frequency at peak service. A bigger RFTA would require a larger staff and more facilities to operate it.

RFTA scaled back its expansion proposal after finding skepticism among local elected officials that the grandest plan could be funded, according to RFTA planner Kristin Kenyon.

Thursday’s favored proposal would place the same question on the November ballot in Aspen, Snowmass Village, Basalt, Glenwood Springs and New Castle as well as Pitkin County and the valley’s sliver of Eagle County. Voters in each jurisdiction would be asked to approve a 0.4 percent sales tax increase.

Voters in Carbondale likely will be asked to approve a 0.3 percent sales tax hike and turn over an existing 0.1 percent sales tax for transportation improvements to RFTA. (The Carbondale Town Council’s blessing will be sought for the slightly different question.)

If approved, the sales tax hike would raise an additional $6 million in revenues in 2009, according to RFTA Chief Operating Officer Dan Blankenship. Revenues would increase by an estimated 3 percent annually because of economic growth. All the jurisdictions currently have sales taxes of various amounts dedicated to RFTA.

To help jump start the expansion of the bus system, RFTA will seek voter approval to issue $38 million in bonds. The bonds would be repaid through the revenues of the sales tax increase at an annual rate of about $2.6 million over 30 years.

Blankenship said the expansion plan also hinges on scoring $24.5 million from the Federal Transit Administration.

The sales tax hike and bonding issuance will be wrapped into one question for the November ballot.

RFTA board members said it must be clear during the campaign that RFTA might need to return to voters at some point for additional funding to implement another phase of its expansion plan. The agency “cheaped out” in the 2004 election and didn’t seek enough funding from voters, said Jacque Whitsitt, a board member and Basalt councilwoman. That’s forcing it to return for more funding four years later. A survey of a representative sample of Roaring Fork Valley residents indicates preliminary support for another tax hike.

The phased approach to RFTA’s expansion drew varying degrees of support from RFTA board members.

“We’re ready to go and would like to see that on the ballot,” said board member and Aspen councilman Dwayne Romero.

Whitsitt said RFTA has an obligation to be visionary and expand to meet ridership demands that will grow as gas prices climb and traffic snarls.

But Snowmass Village representatives John Wilkinson and Arnie Mordkin said they favored popping the question at a later election. Wilkinson said RFTA should prepare a grander plan for its expansion and approach voters for funding of that full plan

rather than take a phased approach.

“I think we need to bake this a little bit longer,” he said.

Mordkin is skeptical that the voters will approve the request because of the sagging economy and questions about funding inequities. Nevertheless, he said he would support placing it on the ballot.

“Let’s shoot the dice and see what happens,” Mordkin said.

The RFTA board didn’t certify a ballot question Thursday. It will review additional information in June to see if any changes need to be made. Ballot wording doesn’t need to be finalized until September.

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