RFTA goes to Washington

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times Staff Writer

A group representing the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority is heading to Washington, D.C., today to lobby for $64 million in federal funds to improve regional transit service between Aspen and Rifle.

Aspen City Councilman Tony Hershey and Dan Richardson, a councilman from Glenwood Springs, will meet with the Colorado Congressional delegation on Wednesday to explain and promote the “bus rapid transit” system that RFTA hopes to build. Both serve on the RFTA board.

They will be joined by Dan Blankenship, executive director of RFTA; Alice Hubbard, RFTA’s development director; and Heather Copp, RFTA’s new finance director.

The group has set up meetings with officials from the Federal Transit Administration, as well as Congressmen Scott McInnis and Mark Udall and Sens. Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Wayne Allard.

Congress is currently developing the third in a series of long-range transportation funding bills that allocate billions of dollars to local jurisdictions for items such as new bridges, roads and transit systems.

In 1991, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, or ISTEA, was passed. It is referred to as “ice tea.” That bill helped transform the Colorado Department of Highways into the Department of Transportation and led to the state supporting a transit component to the Entrance to Aspen and HOV lanes on Highway 82 between Basalt and Buttermilk Mountain.

The second six-year spending bill was called TEA-21 – the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century. It included an allocation for $40 million for a valleywide rail system between Aspen and Glenwood Springs. Of that authorization, however, only $4 million was actually allocated and given to RFTA.

Of the $4 million, $2 million has been spent developing a “corridor investment study” and a draft environmental impact study comparing the cost and efficiency of valleywide rail with a bus rapid transit system, or BRT.

The BRT system would include a variety of transit improvements that would work in the near term for buses but could also be used someday as part of a rail system, such as a heated, enclosed stations, platforms and dedicated transit corridors. The BRT system would also feature “super express” service, which would avoid detours off the main route, such as the Blue Lake tour below El Jebel, as well as new buses.

The $64 million figure the RFTA group will be lobbying for is half the cost of the proposed BRT system.

The latest federal funding bill is being called TEA-3, and if RFTA is successful in getting the money authorized, it doesn’t mean the funds would actually be given to the agency, only that RFTA could ask for the money in the future.

“If we are not in the line at the movies, we can’t buy a ticket and we won’t see the movie,” is the way Hershey put it. “If we don’t want to see the movie when it is time, that is fine. But if McInnis or Udall don’t put us in the bill for authorization, then we have to wait for six years.”

Hubbard of RFTA said that Udall’s congressional office supports the request for authorization. Udall represents Eagle County, which includes the Basalt and El Jebel areas. McInnis represents the rest of the Roaring Fork Valley.

The RFTA group is fairly confident that at least Udall and Campbell will carve time out of their schedule on Wednesday to meet with them and are also hoping that McInnis and Allard will also take the time to meet with them briefly. If they do not, staff members from each congressman’s office will sit down and listen to RFTA’s pitch.

And they are hopeful that the meetings will lead to authorization for funding in TEA-3.

“This is not a slam dunk,” said Hubbard. “But the project has a lot going for it. There has been extensive citizen involvement, a substantial amount of resources to date has been put into this effort, and the project is unique and relatively small compared to other systems. And it is definitely a way to make the existing CDOT and federal highway infrastructure last longer.”

RFTA’s analysis shows that even with the ongoing four-laning of Highway 82, additional transit improvements will be needed by 2009 to reduce congestion. The BRT project is also the only such project that RFTA is aware of in a rural area.

“We can serve as a model for how transit can be effective in non-urban areas,” Hubbard said.

However, the last time elected officials from the Roaring Fork Valley went to Washington seeking transit funding, they were pitching a valleywide rail system. Now they have to explain why they are going with the “bus then maybe rail” approach.

“It is an acceptable middle ground,” said Hubbard. “It was not productive for people who support transit to be fighting over rail versus buses when we could be making what we have today better and still leave the rail option open.”

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