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RFTA to get help

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The upper valley is apparently willing to cover a Roaring Fork Transportation Authority shortfall to prevent drastic cuts in valleywide bus service.

In return, RFTA will ask Garfield County to impose a tax to support the regional transit system that serves the Roaring Fork Valley.

Elected officials in Aspen, Snowmass Village and Pitkin County are scheduled to meet formally today to approve spending about $246,000 to shore up RFTA service for the winter season and the coming year. Representatives from all three jurisdictions told the RFTA board Thursday that their respective governments are willing to step up and cover the deficit.

Officials from the three upvalley governments make up the Elected Officials Transportation Committee, which oversees the revenues from a half-cent, Pitkin County sales tax dedicated to transit. All three jurisdictions must agree to spend money from the funds the EOTC controls, and Snowmass Village is attaching some strings to its consent, Snowmass Councilman Arnie Mordkin told his RFTA board colleagues.

The Snowmass Village Town Council doesn’t want the EOTC to provide the roughly $50,000 necessary to stave off proposed cuts in the Grand Hogback route between Glenwood Springs and Rifle, according to Mordkin, though he later indicated the council might relent on that point. The Aspen City Council and Pitkin County commissioners, who have also discussed the RFTA budget crisis within the context of their own meetings this week, are both willing to cover the entire shortfall.

Mordkin also noted that Pitkin County dedicates a larger percentage of its transit taxes to RFTA’s valleywide system than any other participating jurisdiction. He said Snowmass would demand that RFTA attempt to get higher contributions approved by voters in downvalley jurisdictions as a condition of the EOTC bailout.

Pitkin County, which includes Aspen and Snowmass, contributes the equivalent of nearly three-quarters of a cent in sales taxes to the bus service – or a little more than $3 million next year.

If every jurisdiction was paying an equivalent amount into the system, “you not only wouldn’t have a shortfall, you’d have a significant budget surplus,” Mordkin said.

RFTA’s downvalley members, including Basalt, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs and a portion of Eagle County, contribute lesser amounts, but they get less service, too, according to Dan Blankenship, RFTA chief executive officer. If they paid more, RFTA would see increased operating costs to boost the frequency of downvalley service, he said.

“To me, this is a valleywide system that has taken us at least 10 years to achieve,” said Dorothea Farris, Pitkin County commissioner, suggesting the board keep a regional perspective and resist the urge to fall back into old squabbles about who gives what.

“I think we need to get past the rancor and the ‘We’re doing more than you’re doing’ . I think we need to get beyond that,” she said.

Mordkin ultimately backed away from the demand for increased participation from RFTA’s downvalley backers and said Snowmass wants to see Garfield County join the consortium of valley governments that help fund RFTA through dedicated sales taxes. He got no argument from the rest of the RFTA board, made up of representatives from each of the member jurisdictions.

The board voted unanimously to approach Garfield County about joining the Rural Transportation Authority that funds RFTA. Garco could, as Eagle County does, institute a sales tax in just a portion of its borders.

If Garfield County, or individual municipalities such as Rifle and Silt, aren’t willing to put money toward the bus system, Snowmass will be calling to pull the plug on the Grand Hogback route a year from now, Mordkin predicted.

“Why aren’t you going to Silt and Rifle?” said Aspen Councilman Terry Paulson. “Why put the burden on Garfield County?”

“I think we want to approach this with the greatest chance of success,” responded Dan Richardson, a Glenwood Springs councilman. “I think if we go to the city of Rifle, we won’t find that success.”

The Grand Hogback service, which began in 2002, was a promise that came with formation of the Rural Transportation Authority, noted Dorothea Farris, Pitkin County commissioner. It’s too soon to discontinue the route or cut back the service, she said, especially if RFTA hopes to enlist the participation of Garfield County and, perhaps, the communities it serves on the I-70 corridor.

“We believe it’s important, but of equal concern is Garfield County needs to contribute,” Farris said, speaking for the Board of County Commissioners. “It’s also the time to say, ‘Hey, guys, put up or shut up.'”

Although Garfield County did not choose to put the 2000 formation of the Rural Transportation Authority or a tax to fund it before its voters, it did contribute $25,000 to the bus system this year and is contemplating an allocation in 2004, the board was told.

Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com


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