RFTA looks upvalley for help | AspenTimes.com

RFTA looks upvalley for help

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Upper valley governments must decide whether or not Pitkin County should ride to the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s rescue with an influx of funds to stave off cuts in bus service.

RFTA’s proposed 2004 budget outlines nearly $500,000 worth of service cuts that would, over the course of the year, affect about 112,860 riders. The authority, which operates the valley’s bus system, needs about $245,000 to balance its budget for next year, according to Dan Blankenship, chief executive officer.

Because any savings resulting from reductions in service are offset by nearly 50 percent in lost fare revenue, RFTA needs to cut about $500,000 worth of service to save $245,000, he notes in a memo to the Elected Officials Transportation Committee, or EOTC.

The EOTC, made up of elected officials from the city of Aspen, town of Snowmass Village and Pitkin County, oversees the proceeds of a half-cent, countywide sales tax dedicated to transit. It has about $12.6 million in accumulated surplus at its disposal.

With the RFTA board of directors scheduled to meet Thursday to decide what cuts to make, and the authority preparing to print its winter bus schedules, the EOTC may hold an emergency meeting this week to discuss RFTA’s budget crisis, according to Steve Barwick, Aspen’s city manager.

Aspen City Council members will discuss whether they’ll support using EOTC funds to shore up RFTA’s budget when they meet for a work session today. A majority of Snowmass Village Town Council members and county commissioners would also have to approve the expenditure.

“I don’t like cutting service. I would do anything to avoid cutting service, but in terms of the RFTA budget, I don’t know what else we can do,” said Aspen Mayor Helen Klanderud last week.

However, she suggested the EOTC may at least want to prevent the proposed cuts in upvalley service.

The EOTC surplus is supposed to go toward long-term capital improvements in the valley’s transportation system, rather than RFTA’s operating costs, said Councilwoman Rachel Richards, but she called for the council to consider use of the money to reduce the magnitude of the proposed service cuts.

“I don’t know if we could do the whole nut, but we could do some,” she said. “It doesn’t help the future of the system to see cutbacks and then try to rebuild.”

Every municipality and county between Glenwood Springs and Aspen currently supports RFTA with tax dollars with the exception of Garfield County.

Nearly half of Pitkin County’s half-cent tax already goes to RFTA operations – $1.3 million this year. In addition, the EOTC agreed this year to spend $225,000 for a new roof on RFTA’s bus maintenance facility in Aspen and provided $250,000 in matching funds for buses. The committee also spent $30,000 to maintain free service on valley buses between Aspen and the Aspen Business Center.

If the EOTC won’t again subsidize the airport route, the city will face that burden, according to Klanderud. “We do have to keep that free,” she said.

The proposed service cuts in RFTA’s draft budget include running valley buses from 6 a.m. to 12:15 a.m. year-round, rather than starting service at 4:35 a.m. and ending at 2:15 a.m.

In addition, direct service between Aspen and Snowmass would end at 12:15 a.m. instead of 2:15 a.m. during the winter season; one direct run between Snowmass and downvalley destinations per day would be cut for the winter; service between the Snowmass Village Mall and the Brush Creek intercept lot would be reduced from two runs per hour to one during the winter; summer and winter service to Woody Creek would be eliminated; weekend service on the Grand Hogback route between Glenwood Springs and Rifle would be eliminated year-round; and one weekday run on the Grand Hogback route would be cut year-round.

RFTA’s finances have been hurt by declining sales tax revenue and a decline in regional ridership, according to Blankenship.

Its 2004 budget includes about $250,000 that RFTA is setting aside for operating reserves and capital replacement. The authority could erase its projected operating shortfall by using those funds, but it wouldn’t be doing anything to improve its long-range financial condition, he noted in his memo.

The budget reflects no increase in wages and benefits for employees, and the reduced hours of operation would allow the authority to cut one of its three maintenance shifts, according to Blankenship.

[Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com]

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