Rough road for city buses: Potholes in budget ahead | AspenTimes.com

Rough road for city buses: Potholes in budget ahead

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Aspen may need to make substantial cuts in its in-town bus service to make its 2003 transportation budget balance, but the City Council wants to look at a list of options before it decides what to do.

Grim projections show a continuing decline in the tax revenues that fund the city?s bus service and a deficit that grows from about $87,000 next year to more than $1 million within a few years if something isn?t done.

?We?ve got some major challenges and we?ve got to face them now,? said City Manager Steve Barwick at a work session Tuesday. ?We had a fund balance last year and we said, we?ll fix it this year. Now we?ve got to fix it.?

Last year, the council cut late-night and early morning service on its bus routes during the off-seasons to make its transportation budget work. This year, city staffers have suggested much deeper cuts, putting the Cross-Town Shuttle and East End dial-a-ride services on the chopping block.

The cross-town bus runs from the Aspen Club to the Music Tent in the summer and winter, the dial-a-ride bus goes east on Highway 82 as far as Mountain Valley. For a $1 fare, dial-a-ride passengers can get service to their door in neighborhoods that extend up the steep mountainside along the highway. That service would be eliminated under the proposal, but a bus running a fixed route along the highway east of town would continue.

The moves would save about $378,000 next year, according to Randy Ready, assistant city manager. The two routes see the lowest ridership in the city, he said.

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?This is what I call the meat-cleaver approach ? cutting two low-performing routes,? Ready said.

Instead, the council agreed as a first step to cut $100,000 in pedestrian mall maintenance costs out of the transportation budget and put them where they belong ? probably the parks fund. And nearly $82,000 that had been coming out of transportation money for the city?s food-tax refund program will instead come from the general fund, likely forcing a later decision on cuts there.

The popular $50 food-tax refunds offered annually to city residents cost about $144,000 in total this year, but thoughts of cutting the program or reducing the amount of the refund made some council members wince.

?Can we do away with the food-tax refund?? asked Councilman Tom McCabe. ?It?s not an essential service and we?re in a tough year.?

?Are you suicidal or what?? responded Mayor Helen Klanderud.

The council agreed to leave the refunds intact and will meet again next month to review a list of potential moves to balance the transportation budget, including service cuts.

?We could save $300,000 by cutting Sunday service. No Sunday service in town,? Ready said.

Fares for what has always been a free service will also on the table for the council?s consideration, he said, though it?s not a likely outcome.

?Staff is going to be hard-pressed to recommend that,? Ready said, noting the added costs associated with collecting fares and the drop in ridership that would probably result.

?We have one of the most outstanding transit systems anywhere,? Klanderud said. ?If we?re going to start cutting away at it, we may ruin it in the long term.?

?Helen, I agree with you. Service cuts are the last resort,? said Councilman Tim Semrau.

But with declining sales tax revenues (a 5 percent drop is forecast next year) and a lodging tax to help fund transit that is not performing up to expectations, something has to give in the city budget, Barwick warned.

?You?re going to have to have service cuts, whether they?re in transit, in parks or the general fund,? he said.

Next year?s transportation budget, before the mall maintenance and food-tax refund expenses were allocated elsewhere, showed a $260,490 shortfall. With leftover cash from this year applied to the deficit, the budget was in the hole by about $87,000.

In succeeding years, when the budget calls for putting close to $300,000 aside annually to eventually replace the city?s fleet of buses, the projected deficits rise dramatically ? to $1.4 million by 2006 and $1.9 million in 2007.

The city contracts with the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority to operate its bus service and owns the buses used on the in-town routes.

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