RFTA sends expansion plan to ballot | AspenTimes.com

RFTA sends expansion plan to ballot

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

CARBONDALE ” Voters from Aspen to New Castle will be asked in November to increase the sales tax rate to build a better bus system.

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s board of directors approved a ballot question Thursday that will seek a 0.4 percent sales tax hike. That means consumers would pay 4 cents more on every $10 of goods purchased. Groceries would be excluded from the hike.

The extra sales tax revenues would help fund what is essentially a $100 million expansion of RFTA’s bus system. The proposal calls for $61.2 million in capital improvements such as new buses; improved bus stations; traffic intersection improvements that give priority to buses; and high-tech information systems that help passengers track bus progress.

The expansion would also boost operating revenues by about $37 million between 2009 and 2017.

For bus riders, the biggest selling point is probably increased frequency of service. More buses would be available, particularly at busy times, to travel between Aspen and downvalley towns.

The RFTA board voted 7-0 to place the question on the ballot. The proposal was approved by representatives from Aspen, Snowmass Village, Pitkin County, Basalt, Eagle County, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs and Snowmass Village.

Two board members expressed financial concerns about the proposal. John Wilkinson, a Snowmass Village councilman, said merchants there fear that the resort’s cumulative sales tax level is too high and puts the resort at a competitive disadvantage. Any sales tax increase, however small, would be viewed unfavorably, he claimed.

“I don’t have the majority of my board supporting this, so I don’t know that I can support it,” Wilkinson said. Nevertheless, he voted minutes later to place the question on the ballot.

Aspen City Councilman Steve Skadron asked if November is the best time to seek a tax increase. In Aspen, voters will be asked for up to $80 million in funding to complete the Burlingame affordable housing project, he said.

“We have a ballot that will be loaded with really big numbers,” Skadron said.

RFTA Chief Executive Officer Dan Blankenship replied that it didn’t make sense to wait for perfect timing. One jurisdiction or another will have a big issue on its ballot at every election, he said.

RFTA recently hired a professional polling firm to survey voters about a sales tax increase to expand the bus system. Respondents, including those in Snowmass Village, viewed the proposal favorably.

Basalt Councilwoman Jacque Whitsitt supported the ballot question, although she said she has a “gut feeling” that RFTA should seek a higher level of funding. Demand for mass transit grows as gas prices soar and it costs more to operate a private vehicle. Whitsitt said she wants RFTA to be able to keep pace with that demand without returning to voters in a few years. This ballot question might not raise adequate revenues, she warned.

RFTA hauled a record 4.5 million passengers in 2007. Buses were often filled to standing room during the morning and afternoon commutes. Ridership is expected to approach 5 million this year.

Whitsitt said proponents of the RFTA expansion should obtain reliable projections of traffic and show voters “how horrible it’s going to be if we don’t do this.”

RFTA examined a more expensive expansion plan last spring, but staff and the directors concluded in May they had to pare the plan down to make it palatable to the public.

The plan RFTA will put before voters calls for 15 new, larger-capacity buses at a cost of $9.4 million. Additions and improvements of bus stations would be $28.8 million. Expansion of a maintenance facility to handle the expanded fleet would cost $10.7 million. Technological improvements would cost $5.5 million, while traffic intersection upgrades would add $6.8 million.

Those add up to $61.2 million. RFTA’s ballot question will seek voter permission to issue $44.56 million in bonds to speed completion of those capital projects. The bonds would be paid through the sales tax increase.

RFTA officials hope to receive between $21 million and $25 million in funds from the Federal Transit Administration to help fund the expansion. If those grants aren’t obtained, RFTA would reduce its wish list of projects to about $40 million by slashing funds for bus stations.

Regardless of whether the federal funding is awarded, RFTA aims to expand its service, and that expansion will require more operating funds. The proposed sales tax increase would keep RFTA solvent through 2020, according to RFTA’s projections.