RFTA lands housing for some of its bus drivers | AspenTimes.com

RFTA lands housing for some of its bus drivers

Janet Urquhart

The Roaring Fork Transit Agency is about to become a landlord.

The bus agency, caught in a perennial struggle to attract bus drivers and maintenance personnel to work in the valley, is getting a new lure – the keys to apartments it can offer its workers.

RFTA is pursuing the purchase of a five-unit apartment complex in Carbondale and has struck a deal with the city of Aspen for 10 seasonal apartments and four year-round units at the newly built Burlingame seasonal housing project.

The Aspen City Council agreed Monday to float RFTA a $550,000 loan for the apartment building, at 1048 Main St. in Carbondale, and to allocate the Burlingame units to the transit agency. Pitkin County and Snowmass Village must also approve the loan, which will come from a half-cent sales tax controlled by the three upvalley governments.

Affordable housing dedicated to RFTA may go a long way toward helping the agency solve its chronic labor shortage, according to Dan Blankenship, RFTA general manager.

The agency needs about 145 drivers to adequately staff its winter-season service, but it typically limps along with 115 to 120 overworked workers, he said.

“We were just up against the wall in terms of recruitment – it has been very frustrating for us,” he said. “Our wages, on the surface, look pretty good, until people get here and find out the cost of housing and that they have to live in Battlement Mesa.”

RFTA is about a month away from closing the deal on the Carbondale property. The agency began seeking housing at the start of the summer. Staffers were “beating the bushes” when the building popped up, Blankenship said. Built in 1992, it offers two two-bedroom units and three one-bedroom units.

The purchase price is $525,000; an additional $25,000 will be available for remodeling work.

In addition, the city of Aspen has offered to provide 10 two-bedroom seasonal units at Burlingame to RFTA through a “master lease” arrangement. RFTA must make a one-time payment of $300,000 for the units, which will rent for $440 per bedroom. RFTA will be responsible for payment of the rent, even if a bedroom is unoccupied, and then collect rent from its employees.

The units will be available from Sept. 1 through April 30, but occupancy can be extended to May 31. The units are rented to music students during the summer.

The deal for the four one-bedroom, year-round units calls for no up-front subsidy from RFTA. The bus agency is responsible for the $770 rent and, in exchange for a master lease on the units, must take over the city’s cross-town shuttle service.

The city has been contracting with High Mountain Taxi drivers to drive the cross-town bus route in the summer and winter because RFTA has not had the staff to spare.

How RFTA will award its housing units has not been decided, Blankenship said, but the seasonal units, certainly, will be used to attract the extra employees the agency needs during the busy ski season.

“In order to get our wintertime complement of drivers, we’re going to have to recruit outside the area,” he said. RFTA has even considered looking overseas for help, like the Aspen Skiing Co. does. Foreign workers can be employed seasonally through a special visa program.

RFTA will repay the loan for the Carbondale building and the $300,000 for the Burlingame housing through its existing bonding capacity or through additional bonding capacity that will be proposed in Pitkin County as part of the formation of a Rural Transportation District.

Formation of the RTA will be proposed to voters valleywide in November. The authority would fund improved mass transit in the valley with tax proceeds from each participating county and municipality.

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