RFTA to cut bus service on weekends | AspenTimes.com

RFTA to cut bus service on weekends

A windfall of more than $500,000 may seem like a godsend to the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s employees and riders alike, but both groups will still feel the squeeze next year.

On Thursday, the Elected Officials Transportation Committee agreed to give RFTA $565,000 for bus purchases, maintenance facility repairs, lobbying and to ensure free fares from Aspen to the Pitkin County airport.

The money couldn’t have been more timely. Just hours before the EOTC met, a handful of RFTA board members and managers were compiling a list of budget cuts to bring the already austere 2003 budget into balance.

But even with the contribution, there will still be some major changes at RFTA next year.

Dan Blankenship, the agency’s executive director, said weekend bus service is slated to shrink dramatically. Beginning in April, weekend service from Aspen to the midvalley will be cut to just one run an hour from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The current service offers buses every half-hour to the midvalley from about 4:30 a.m. to 2:15 a.m.

Weekend service levels will remain at the reduced level for the summer and fall schedules, as well, unless sales tax revenues come in significantly higher than projected.

“We’re still looking at the weekend service, especially for the summer when ridership is higher,” Blankenship said. “Our hope is the winter economy improves. If sales tax collections in the upper valley are flat instead of down 5 percent, as projected, that alone will net us another $250,000.”

Weekend service reductions will save an estimated $273,500 if left in place all year, according to a memo prepared by RFTA’s finance department.

The EOTC money will not likely save the $25,000 cut from the trail development and maintenance budget. Nor will it save the incentive bonus programs that were cut in October.

Car owners in RFTA’s service area will see a $10 transit fee added to their registration bill, beginning sometime next year. The fee was authorized by voters in 2000, when RFTA was transformed from a transit agency dependent on annual contributions from local governments to a rural transportation authority with a dedicated tax from seven local jurisdictions.

RFTA officials were reluctant to implement the car registration fee, but the current budget climate has made them less so. It’s expected to raise $100,000 next year.

The list of cuts RFTA officials were considering included: $70,000 in service reductions by cutting late-night and early morning service throughout the year, delaying the purchase of three buses to save $80,000, even though the maintenance manager says they are badly needed, and the imposition of a $1 fare for small children who take up a seat. In all, the planning and development committee found about $230,000 in cutbacks.

That’s $230,000 on top of the $509,000 culled last October.

The cash infusion from the Elected Officials Transportation Committee means the final round of cuts won’t be necessary, for the most part.

But the EOTC money comes with strings. It must be spent on bus purchases, roof repairs at the bus barn across from the county airport, a lobbyist to gain favorable treatment from Congress in the next transportation appropriations bill and a subsidy to keep the trip from the airport to Aspen free.

The money creates wiggle room for RFTA managers, however. The $250,000 from EOTC for new buses means that money won’t have to come from RFTA’s regular budget. And RFTA officials no longer have to find $225,000 to fix the roof at the bus barn across from Sardy Field, which, after 20 years of service, is in need of some repairs.

“We’ve got some pails and buckets in strategic places, but it’s time to fix that roof,” Blankenship said.

He said he and other managers are looking for still more ways to save money and keep service levels at an acceptable level.

Of the $565,000 appropriated by the EOTC, $60,000 is dedicated to pay for a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. Congress is scheduled to pass a six-year transportation funding bill next year. RFTA officials are hoping to qualify for $50 million to build a bus rapid transit system, but say it’s impossible without a lobbyist to press their case.

And $30,000 of the EOTC money is dedicated to keeping the ride between the airport and Aspen free. Blankenship said elected officials from downvalley have expressed concern about the inequity of providing free service within Aspen, but not within Basalt, Carbondale or Glenwood Springs.

The free service in Aspen was originally part of the transportation plan that came with the imposition of paid parking. The city and RFTA built a parking lot at the airport and offered anyone who parked there a free ride into town.

With the new security measures enacted since the Sept. 11 attacks, it’s not clear whether any commuter parking is still allowed at the airport. County officials and airport officials have yet to answer that question.

But Blankenship urged downvalley residents to leave the issue alone.

“The communities in the upper valley have invested millions in development of the transit system over the years [and] committed more taxes to regional service than other communities,” he said. “And they went over and above last night ? I hope that gesture of good faith by the EOTC will be appreciated and help build trust.”

The EOTC is made up of elected council members and commissioners from the three upper-valley governments that contribute to the half-cent sales tax dedicated to transportation.

[Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is aharvey@aspentimes.com]

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