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RTA war raging in Washington, D.C.

Brent Gardner-Smith

The battle to build a rail system in the Roaring Fork Valley has spilled over to the halls of Congress, as both rail advocates and rail detractors have spent money to either make the project a reality or a distant memory.And both believe their messages are being heard loud and clear in Washington, D.C.This year, the city of Aspen and the Roaring Fork Railroad Holding Authority spent $63,000 to retain Peter Slone, a managing director with the lobbying firm of BKSH & Associates, also known as Black, Kelly, Scruggs & Healey.And also in the last year, Aspen resident Dick Butera has spent at least $10,000 to retain his cousin, James J. Butera, a prominent Washington, D.C., bank lobbyist with the firm of Butera & Andrews, to fight against funding for the Roaring Fork Valley Rail Project.Both sides of the issue claim their efforts have been successful.Now, the nearly seated board of the Rural Transportation Authority will be deciding whether to continue Slone’s retainer for next year and continue lobbying for federal funding, which could be used to conduct preliminary engineering on a rail and/or bus-to-rail system.From the city of Aspen’s perspective, having a lobbyist in Washington has been “absolutely critical” to bringing in the $5 million in federal funds that has come to the valley so far to fund the environmental studies on the rail corridor.”I don’t think there is a single new-start rail project that has had any success without representation,” said Randy Ready, assistant Aspen city manager. “It’s absolutely critical to even think about competing for those funds.”This year marked the fourth year that BKSH has been retained to lobby for funds to study rail in the Roaring Fork Valley on behalf of the Coalition of Roaring Fork Valley Governments. The city of Aspen paid the fees for the lobbying firm, and spent $96,000 in 1997, 1998 and 1999.This year, the city spent $42,000 and RFRHA spent $21,000 with BKSH to lobby for rail funding. The Center for Responsive Government reports that Butera & Andrews was paid $10,000 in 1997 for lobbying on behalf of The Committee to Preserve Aspen, which is described in government forms as a “coalition of homeowners and business groups.” No figures were available from the Center for 1998 or 1999.To date, four different acts of Congress have resulted in federal funding for the rail study. The first was in 1997, when $2 million was allocated. The next three years saw $1 million a year sent here.Slone, the lobbyist who has worked to secure rail funding the past three years, reports that the effort has been a success and that the entire Colorado congressional delegation supports the project.”We have briefed the congressional delegation and shared with them the locally preferred alternative and the alternatives being considered for the corridor,” Slone said. “Most projects would be envious of the support this project has.”But from Dick Butera’s point of view, his cousin was also successful.”We hired him a year ago to save Aspen from the train,” Butera said. “We stopped it. We showed the people that the whole thing was a fraud and through Jim’s lobbying we were able to kill it.”Slone sharply disagrees.”That is an absolute fiction,” he said. “We’ve succeeded in all we’ve tried to do.”The issue of whose lobbyist has been successful depends upon on how you view the outcome of the efforts to include funding for an Aspen rail system in the “Transportation Efficiency Act of the 21st Century, or TEA-21,” which was a five-year transit funding bill passed in 1998.Local elected officials had sought to get $85 million allocated to the Roaring Fork rail project. However, when the bill was passed, there was $40 million set aside for the Glenwood-to-Aspen project.”We carved the heart out of it,” said Butera.But again, Slone disagrees.”It is pure fiction to suggest that it was cut from $80 million,” he said, pointing out that there were 200 projects vying for funding and only 14 had dollar amounts provided, including the Roaring Fork rail project.”The $40 million is a testament to the fact that this project has very significant support,” he said.Slone also minimized the efforts made by James Butera, saying that while he has spoken with Butera on a limited basis, he “never stumbled upon him” while making the rounds of Congressional offices seeking support for the rail project.”If there was a campaign waged, it has largely fallen on deaf ears,” Slone said, adding that no one in either Congress or the Clinton administration is against the project.But Dick Butera is convinced that his cousin’s efforts helped “derail” the project.”He’s a very powerful guy down there,” said Butera, adding that James Butera had come to Aspen to assess the situation for himself.”He keeps in touch with Jeff Evans about what is going on here behind the scenes,” Butera said. Evans is a leader of the Common Sense Alliance, which has actively worked to defeat the prospect of a rail system in the Roaring Fork Valley.Butera and Andrews terminated their representation of the Committee to Preserve Aspen in July 1999, but according to the secretary of the Senate’s Office, they registered on Aug. 1, 2000, as again representing the Committee.Dick Butera is against rail because he thinks it is too expensive, is unnecessary and will ruin the charm of Aspen’s Main Street.”We’re trying to protect the culture and scale of our community,” said Butera. “If you think running a train down Main Street is somehow preserving the charm of Aspen, then somebody is smoking something that I’m not smoking.”When asked how much he had spent on his cousin’s services, Butera would only say, “He’s expensive, I’ll tell you that.”James Butera is a well-known financial lobbyist on Capitol Hill whose clients include Charter One Bank, Dollar Bank and the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston.James Butera declined to be interviewed, saying he does not speak to the press about his clients’ issues.The rail funding to date has gone toward the preparation of an environmental impact study called the Corridor Investment Study, which is expected to be completed in February.If Slone’s services are retained by the new RTA board, he will pursue funding next year that will go toward a preliminary engineering study, which is expected to cost up to $4 million. After that, final design plans could cost up to $8 million to complete.Tom Newland, the director of RFRHA, says that the system being studied is essentially a bus-to-rail system, in that buses could use the highway and new rail-ready transit stations until such time as there is a decision to move forward with rail.A study by RFRHA has shown that the four-laning of Highway 82 will be complete in 2005 and that the highway will be over-congested by 2009, although some think it will take much longer before the highway again needs widening, Newland concedes.”Sometime between 10 years and 50 years from now, we are going to need some sort of commuter rail system in the valley,” he said. “I think it would be irresponsible to stop planning for the future right now. Plus, we can leverage some of this federal funding for a bus system if we keep moving ahead.”The next major funding effort in Washington will be coming up in the next couple of years as the follow-up bill to TEA-21 is passed by Congress.”We want to make sure that our project stays in line for the next transportation bill,” Newland said.The recent passage by voters from Aspen to Glenwood Springs of the Rural Transportation Authority is likely to be viewed favorably by those in Congress, Newland said, as it provides a stable funding source for mass transit projects here, signals community-wide support for transit projects, and creates an independent body capable of overseeing the construction and operation of a mass transit system.


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