RTA blurs line on transit issue
Until this summer, the lines in the transportation debate were pretty clear.On one side were people like former Aspen Mayor John Bennett, Basalt Town Councilwoman Jacque Whitsitt and Carbondale resident and Pitkin County Commissioner Dorothea Farris, all vocal supporters of the plan to reinstate rail service up and down the old Denver & Rio Grande tracks between Glenwood Springs and Aspen.On the other side were people like Aspen City Councilman Tony Hershey, Garfield County Commissioner Walt Stowe, longtime Aspen local Max Marolt and Redstone activist Jeffrey Evans, all of whom have been quite effective, in their own ways, at keeping rail from becoming reality.Then came the RTA. Suddenly the decks have been reshuffled and Stowe and Hershey find themselves on the same side of the argument as Whitsitt and Farris, and even outspoken Pitkin County Commissioner Mick Ireland.”You have to be for something – you can’t be against everything,” said Hershey, who made his name in local politics as an outspoken critic of Mayor Bennett and other supporters of rail.What Hershey, Stowe and other “rail critics” like Carbondale Town Councilwoman Susie Darrow are for is Referendum 4B/4C, the proposal to form a rural transportation authority (RTA). Supporters say RFTA, the existing bus agency that receives the vast majority of its public funding from Aspen and Pitkin County, has reached its limits, and the way to create a system with a more reliable tax base is with an RTA.Opponents like Evans and county commission candidate Martin Fiala say the plan is really a way to secure federal funding for a commuter rail.Referendum 4B/4C is being asked in seven different jurisdictions in the valley – Aspen, Basalt, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs, Snowmass Village and the unincorporated sections of Eagle and Pitkin counties. If voters in enough of those jurisdictions approve the referendum, a new taxing district will be formed to pay for and run buses between Rifle and Aspen.The bait for downvalley communities is a promise of increased service. RFTA, the existing bus agency, currently goes to Carbondale once an hour and Glenwood once every two hours, but if the RTA passes, buses will leave every half-hour. People who live in El Jebel and upvalley will see service increase during peak winter hours to one bus every 15 minutes.The draw for upvalley communities is a system that is supported by taxpayers throughout the valley instead of one that relies almost exclusively on Aspen and Pitkin County revenues.The new system would be funded with sales taxes from all participating communities. Taxes would go up four cents on every $10 purchase (0.4 percent) in Glenwood, Basalt and unincorporated Eagle County and five cents on a $10 purchase in Carbondale. Sales taxes would remain unchanged at 15 cents per $10 purchase (1.5 percent) in Pitkin County and Aspen. However, Aspen voters are being asked to approve a lodging tax that would be used to maintain existing local services.”I guess the question is, should we do nothing for transit simply because we’re afraid of rail?” Hershey said.Hershey sees the RTA as a good compliment to the overall transit picture here, including the highway expansion presently under way. Besides, he pointed out, the final decision on the RTA is up to the voters.Stowe, the Garfield County commissioner, isn’t afraid of rail either, because during negotiations over the intergovernmental agreement that is needed to create the transportation district, he demanded language that would keep rail at bay, at least for now.”The agreement gave me a level of confidence that for the foreseeable future the RTA won’t be used to build a train to Aspen,” he said.Stowe also pointed out that the cost of building a train from Glenwood to Aspen makes it impossible to fund rail without voter approval anyway. “Rail might be a viable option in the future, but I don’t think it’s right right now,” he said.Stowe’s constituents in Aspen Glen, Cattle Creek and other sections of Garfield County located in the Roaring Fork Valley won’t be voting on the RTA because his colleagues on the Garfield County Commission – John Martin and Larry McCown – declined to refer the question to voters.Darrow, the Carbondale town trustee who cast the lone vote against the RTA during negotiations on the intergovernmental agreement, has become a solid supporter of the plan.”I’m voting for it, even though I was one of the more cantankerous members of the policy committee,” she said. “I think ultimately spending money on the buses makes sense; it’s positive for the valley.”For Evans, whose political issues committee known as the Common Sense Alliance has opposed every proposal to build rail in the valley, the RTA is something to be afraid of. He points out that it will increase taxes, reduce accountability and set up exactly the kind of local bureaucracy the federal government requires to receive money for rail projects.”Pitkin County doesn’t need to be leading the drive for increased bus service for downvalley communities that are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves and their own needs for public transportation,” Evans said.Marolt’s support for the concept behind the RTA has been public since 1997, when he made his views known during his unsuccessful campaign to become Aspen’s mayor. “Transportation is critical, and we need to address it,” he said in an interview yesterday. “And the only way to do that is with an independent taxing district, like the RTA.”But Marolt is not planning to vote for the proposal on next month’s ballot for two reasons: the unincorporated portions of Garfield County won’t be included, and there aren’t enough provisions ensuring that voters get the final say on big RTA projects.”I just don’t think it’s complete without the entire valley included,” he said.Marolt also shares some of Evans’ concerns about the connection between the RTA and rail, although he’s less open with his skepticism. “I think rail is in the back of their minds,” he said of RTA supporters. “But I don’t think we’ll ever get the financing together to build it.”
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