RFTA plan may need local funds | AspenTimes.com

RFTA plan may need local funds

Local elected officials say they cannot wait any longer to see if the federal government will fund a wide-ranging plan to make the valley’s bus service more attractive.Instead, they believe they must seek local funds to take the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority to a higher level of service. A plan created in 2002 – informally known as RFTA on Steroids – estimated the cost at $100 million.Finding that kind of dough won’t be easy, members of the RFTA board of directors knowledge.”We know there’s no federal funding there,” said Snowmass Village Councilman Bill Boineau. “The state doesn’t have it. We don’t have it.”So it’s going to require creativity to find the funds, Boineau and other RFTA officials said. Boineau suggested at a RFTA board meeting last week that all local governments start charging a transit mitigation fee on all new development – from a single-family home to a new Target store.RFTA currently depends on local sales tax revenues, fares, grants and service contracts for funding. Officials say the agency is scraping by but unable to fund improvements needed to attract additional riders or match expectations for greater demands.As good as RFTA is, it’s going to require more to get people out of their personal vehicles and into buses, according to Pitkin County Commissioner Dorothea Farris. “More of the same is not what people want,” she said.RFTA on Steroids, more formally known as Bus Rapid Transit, has numerous components centered on a common goal: significantly reducing the travel time between Aspen and other points in the valley.Those components would include more express buses making fewer stops; bus stations strategically placed on Highway 82; pre-pay arrangements that free drivers from collecting fares; ability for drivers to pre-empt traffic signals to let buses get through lights quicker; and slip lanes that allow buses to get around traffic bottlenecks.RFTA has spent about $3 million in cash and $1 million in staff time over the last decade conducting studies and working with the Federal Transportation Authority to try to secure funding for the Bus Rapid Transit plan, according to RFTA Chief Executive Officer Dan Blankenship. “We’re still a ways away from attaining the brass ring, as they say,” he said.And it’s far from certain that any federal funds are forthcoming.”There’s just not enough money and there’s a lot of competition for it,” Blankenship said.Colorado laws prohibit local governments from implementing a new real estate transfer tax or even using a property tax increase to fund transit improvements.So RFTA’s board of directors decided it needs to expand its search for funding. Federal dollars will still be pursued. But at the suggestion of RFTA Chairman Dan Richardson, a Glenwood Springs councilman, the agency will also create a “Mobility Task Force” to seek those dollars and help governments in the valley with transportation-related problems.He proposed that the task force study if a locally funded RFTA on Steroids plan is realistic and how it compares to continuing to seek federal funding. Once all options are explored, RFTA officials can choose the best approach, Richardson said.Adding to the sense of urgency was a presentation by Colin Laird of Healthy Mountain Communities of a study on anticipated travel patterns over the next 20 years.Among reams of projections was one nugget that suggested the number of people commuting between jobs in the upper valley and homes in the midvalley will jump from about 12,000 in 2000 to nearly 25,000 by 2025. The number of commuters between Aspen and the growing towns in Garfield County is expected to increase by an even greater percentage.”We can’t get rid of gridlock in certain locations,” Laird said.Among the recommendations of the study were to implement the Bus Rapid Transit plan “with all due speed,” Laird said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com