RTA goal:Boost bus ridership | AspenTimes.com

RTA goal:Boost bus ridership

Sarah S. Chung

So what will a regional transportation authority really do for the average valley commuter? It may just lure people out of their cars, say transportation officials.

“We’ve found that frequency is the determining factor in mass transit,” said Alice Hubbard, Rural Transportation Authority project manager. “If you know if you miss the bus, you’ll have to wait two hours vs. half an hour or 15 minutes, it’s going to make the difference between jumping into your car or taking the bus.”

It remains to be seen whether the promise of improved bus service, which RTA funding would allow, is enough to entice valley voters to approve formation of an RTA. The question is headed for a November ballot.

But it certainly appears valley commuters would take advantage of better transit service. In the first two years after bus service increased from running every hour to every half-hour between Aspen and El Jebel, ridership jumped 72 percent – about 900,000 additional riders, according to the Roaring Fork Transit Agency.

Among the first priorities for the additional transit revenues an RTA would provide are increased bus service between Aspen and Glenwood Springs and new hourly service between Glenwood Springs and Rifle. Between Aspen and Glenwood, buses would run every 30 minutes, instead of the current schedule of service every hour or two hours, depending on the time of day.

It’s projected that the new service schedule would lure more than 900,000 additional passengers annually, according to RFTA, the valley’s bus operator.

RFTA’s 2000 budget projects $2.8 million in fare revenue – about 20 percent of the funding needed to operate the existing valley bus system. The remainder of the agency’s $13.59 million budget comes from contributions from local governments and contracts for services with businesses like the Aspen Skiing Co.

Of RFTA’s government subsidy, upvalley jurisdictions chip in about 85 percent of the pot through the proceeds of a 1.5 percent transportation sales tax. Contributions from Pitkin County, Aspen and Snowmass Village amount to about half of the agency’s overall revenues, including fares and private contracts for service.

In recent RTA discussions, representatives of eight governments up and down the valley have leaned toward funding the RTA through a .4 percent sales tax. Enacting such a tax in Pitkin, Garfield and Eagle counties, along with Aspen, Snowmass Village, Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, would produce an estimated $5.2 million annually, with Aspen contributing $1.748 million and Glenwood Springs close behind at $1.656 million.

Proceeds from the tax would fund the improved “trunk line” service between Aspen and Glenwood Springs, make up a projected $1.9 million RFTA deficit, and leave a little left over for regional planning and trails.

On Wednesday, RTA consultant Walter Kieser told the Pitkin County commissioners that it is not expected that Pitkin County would be asked to tack on an additional .4 percent to its existing 1.5 percent transportation sales tax, which includes a one-cent tax and separate half-cent tax.

“What we’re saying right now in the policy committee is that we don’t need an additional .4, but rather we do need a portion of the one-cent and half-cent dedicated to the RTA,” Kieser said.

A decision on RTA funding from jurisdictions that already have transportation taxes in place has not been reached by the RTA policy committee. In addition to the upvalley governments, Eagle County collects a .5 percent sales tax and Glenwood Springs has a .25 percent sales tax for transportation.

In the interest of balancing the needs and contributions of all eight governments, Kieser stressed the RTA will clearly separate the “trunk line” operations and “feeder” services. All jurisdictions will help fund the trunk line, he said. But each jurisdiction will pay for its own “feeder” routes that provide localized service in each town and provide bus connections to the commuter buses running up and down the valley, Kieser said.

“What `fair’ and `equitable’ mean in each region may differ,” Kieser noted. “But we will divide the RTA funding into two piles. We are not going to cross-subsidize local service.”

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