RTA board talks about future of valley rail | AspenTimes.com

RTA board talks about future of valley rail

Allyn Harvey

Aspen City Councilman Tony Hershey received only tepid support from elected officials Thursday for his proposal to shut down the Roaring Fork Railroad Holding Authority once and for all.But even if he is successful in shutting down the agency everyone associates with rail, it was clear by the end of Thursday’s inaugural meeting of the Rural Transportation Authority board of directors that the work necessary to fund and build a valleywide commuter rail system will continue.”It doesn’t make sense to keep spending all this money on an organization that doesn’t need to exist,” Hershey said. “Rail is not on the horizon.”Even so, the councilman did express support for completing two of RFRHA’s big tasks, the corridor investment study, and construction of a bicycle/pedestrian trail from Glenwood Springs to Aspen.The corridor investment study of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad right of way has been under way for two years and is expected to wind up next spring. Once completed, it will define the “locally preferred alternative” about how to develop the publicly owned right-of-way. The investment study is needed to qualify the valley for financial assistance from the Federal Transit Administration and other federal agencies for whatever transit solution the valley decides on – buses or rail.”It seems like a waste, not to get credit with the federal government towards matching grants for the money we spend on local projects,” Hershey said.Hershey, Aspen’s alternate on the RTA board, saved his shots for one expense in particular: Executive Director Tom Newland’s salary.”It’s my understanding that as of November 7, RFRHA ceases to exist, and if that’s the case, then we don’t need to pay an executive director to run it,” he said.The new RTA board met Thursday to review the budget for 2001 and start the process of merging the transportation authority with Roaring Fork Transit Agency, the existing bus agency that’s more familiarly known as RFTA.When voters in seven local jurisdictions agreed to tax themselves and form the RTA, they also gave the new organization control over RFRHA. The RTA is ultimately responsible for all of the tasks that once belonged to RFRHA. Hershey suggested that RTA management could assume most of Newland’s job responsibilities, or contract out for some of the services like weed control that are currently overseen by the director.He didn’t find much enthusiasm for his suggestion to ax Newland and his $100,000-plus per year salary, at least right away. But some on the RTA board expressed sympathy with Hershey’s worry that the new agency could become a vehicle for rail construction, no matter what the voters want.After confirming with Newland that, as far the federal government is concerned, a “rational nexus” exists between bus and rail funding, Carbondale Mayor Randy Vanderhurst said he could see the source of Hershey’s worry.”If the corridor investment study’s preferred alternative is rail, with the interim step being an enhanced bus system that’s rail ready, it’s obvious that one triggers another. So I can see Tony’s concerns,” Vanderhurst said.But Mary Steinbrecher from the Glenwood Springs City Council insisted the study continue. The biggest reason of all, she said, is to be ready if and when the valley’s voters decide to support the rail system. She estimated the “shelf life” of a completed study at 15 years. That’s about the same amount of time that state highway engineers estimate to pass before a four-lane Highway 82 begins to gridlock.”We then are 15 years ahead of the game,” she said. “And we have a plan on the shelf that we can take off the shelf when we think we need it.”Like several others on the board, she pointed out that rail can’t be built without voter approval.The RTA board will meet again 9 a.m. next Thursday at Carbondale Town Hall to finalize their first budget.

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