RFTA provides the best bet for funding a valleywide trail | AspenTimes.com

RFTA provides the best bet for funding a valleywide trail

People who want to see a valleywide trail built quickly may live to rue the day in November 2000 when voters approved creation of something called the Rural Transportation Authority.

At first blush, the RTA ballot question fueled hope that the funds would be available to complete the trail link between Aspen and Glenwood Springs on the old Denver and Rio Grande Railroad corridor. It created a sales tax that is levied in all jurisdictions in the valley, except Garfield County, to raise revenues to run the bus system and to build trails.

So far, so good. The problem is the ballot question didn’t specify how much funding would be devoted to trails. During the campaign, elected officials and government staffers told valley residents that the target would be to spend 4.4 percent of sales tax revenues on trails and another 2.2 percent to maintain the corridor.

But those figures aren’t binding, and now the cash-strapped Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, the working name for the RTA, is struggling just to keep buses running at traditional levels.

“We’re in very challenging economic times right now,” said RFTA Director Dan Blankenship. Sales tax revenues never reached the projected level in 2001 “and it’s gone down every year,” he said.

RFTA expected to receive about $6.86 million in sales tax revenues in 2001. It received $6.22 million, or about 10 percent less.

Revenues sagged to $6.18 million last year, and they are projected to dip to $5.79 million this year. If traditional patterns of sales growth had continued at roughly 4 percent annually since 1999, as was assumed when the RTA was approved, RFTA would have raked in $7.42 million this year.

Campaign promises

The tight budget doesn’t necessarily mean that funds for trails are in jeopardy, said Blankenship. RFTA is trying to make budget reductions equitable.

Some members of RFTA’s board of directors want to fund trail construction regardless of the impacts. Others support trails but aren’t willing to cut into bus service or lay off workers to maintain trail funding, according to Blankenship.

RFTA board chairwoman Jacque Whitsitt said it probably would have been better to have the November 2000 ballot question specify a binding spending level for trails. She said she supports a level greater than the 4.4 percent discussed during the campaign.

“My preference would be minimally 10 percent,” she said. “I don’t think that’s outrageous.”

The RFTA board is scheduled to set some broad policy directions Wednesday at a retreat. It’s unclear whether members will discuss trail funding in detail. If not Wednesday, the direction must be cast soon, said Whitsitt.

Roughly $3 million

The outcome of that discussion will determine how long it takes to complete the trail. RFTA appears to be the only organization willing to fund trail work now that Pitkin County has completed the stretch through its borders.

The Pitkin County Open Space and Trails Program has spent about $3.5 million in three years extending the trail from Woody Creek to Emma. The trail already existed on the six miles between Woody Creek and Aspen.

The MidValley Trails Committee has secured $122,000 in a state grant and $83,000 from RFTA to extend the trail a little more than a mile downvalley from Emma in Eagle County. That work will be done by spring.

Carbondale has built one mile of trail on the railroad corridor through town, and Glenwood Springs has about 2.5 miles of trail built and another mile planned. A developer at Cattle Creek is responsible for construction of another mile.

That leaves roughly 15 miles of trail to be built. Dale Will, director of Pitkin County’s open space program, said it costs roughly $200,000 per mile to build an asphalt trail. That means $3 million is needed, at today’s prices, to complete the work.

“There are a lot of ways to start chipping away at it,” said Will.

Garco isn’t playing

The chipping will have to be done without Garfield County government. Although 18 miles of the rail corridor are in Garfield County, the county commissioners show no sign of sinking funds into a trail.

“Recreation and trails are not something Garfield County has focused on in the past,” County Commissioner Tresi Houpt told the Pitkin County commissioners in a joint meeting last week. She hopes to change that. However, her two colleagues, Commissioners John Martin and Larry McGowan, offered no support for a change.

Garfield County’s decision not to be part of the RTA also removes sales tax revenue potential away from RFTA.

Only three miles of the corridor cross Eagle County, so its funding potential is limited.

RFTA’s current funding levels, excluding grants, would provide enough funding for about 1.25 miles of trail per year. In theory, $256,000 should have gone to trails this year, Blankenship said. Actual funding will be $106,000 short.

However, Blankenship said RFTA’s board must also resolve whether staff time spent on trails issues should count toward the campaign pledge of 4.4 percent or whether it should strictly be money spent on trail construction.

RFTA isn’t entirely alone on funding trail work. Organizations like Great Outdoors Colorado and the state trails fund issue grants. “We will continue to beat the bushes,” said Blankenship.

He is also optimistic that if the economy improves and RFTA sales tax revenues resume growing, the momentum will build for completing the trail sooner rather than later.

As more trail segments get built, users will apply greater pressure on their elected officials to complete the trail, Blankenship predicted. And elected officials are likely to respond.

“People like to get on the bandwagon when something’s popular,” he said.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com

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