RFTA runs on empty again | AspenTimes.com

RFTA runs on empty again

As if being $444,000 in the red this year wasn’t bad enough, the Roaring Fork Transit Agency can look forward to a projected $600,000 to $700,000 deficit in the year 2000.

This year, RFTA made up the shortfall by dipping into its reserve fund. But to avoid significant cutbacks in service or fare hikes next year, RFTA officials are already making rounds to local governments, seeking additional funding for the valley bus agency’s 2000 budget. And, they are preparing to go to the voters, as well.

The agency’s ultimate goal is to establish a permanent funding source by creating a Regional Transportation District. But, if the district isn’t approved by voters, what to expect of the valley’s public transportation down the road is anyone’s guess.

“If the RTD doesn’t happen, all bets are off. The valley and upper valley are going to have to radically reconsider what type of service will be provided,” said Aspen Mayor Rachel Richards. “Basically continuing this treading water/drowning approach isn’t really an option.”

This year, RFTA’s operating expenses exceeded revenue by about $244,000. Additionally, $200,000 was needed as a local match to a $793,000 federal grant to purchase four new buses.

RFTA board members opted to cover the deficit using budget reserves. But as sales tax revenue remains flat and operating costs keep rising, a fixed funding district seems to be the only way to avoid both decreasing service and increasing fares, said Dan Blankenship, RFTA general manager.

Estimated fare revenues for 1999 will contribute just $3.9 million to the agency’s $8.9 million in operating and capital costs. Two separate Pitkin County sales taxes will chip in a projected $4.6 million and other towns and counties in the valley served by RFTA are adding $931,424 to this year’s coffers.

But every year it’s a guessing game as to how much governments outside Pitkin County can help, Blankenship said.

It may seem that the upper valley carries more than its fair share of the subsidy burden, Blankenship notes. But, when most RFTA routes were conceived, it was with the upper valley in mind.

“Basically, the upper valley initiated the service based on their particular needs. There wasn’t a lot of discussion with the downvalley governments and then [the downvalley was] asked to help pay for it,” Blankenship said.

“The downvalley’s support has really evolved. But ultimately what’s needed is a dedicated regional funding source where a fair percentage can be taken from each area.”

RFTA has proposed putting a funding question before voters in Pitkin County and in portions of Eagle and Garfield counties next May. As part one of a two-step plan, voters would be asked to allow the counties to give RFTA a part of the revenue received from vehicle registrations.

Then in November of 2000 or 2001, voters would be asked to approve a sales tax of 4/10ths of a percent to be contributed from each county.

And, in the coming months, RFTA will court local governments to garner support for the formation of a RTD. As far as Richards is concerned, the district has her vote.

“For the past six years, the program’s been basically held together with duct tape. It’s time for the valley to stand up for what I think is a valleywide-held belief that taking 2 million cars off the road a year is a good thing,” Richards said.

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