The buck stops in New Castle
Bus service to western Garfield County might get snuffed at the end of this summer because of a regional funding feud.
The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority is going to warn Garfield County, Silt and Rifle that they must pay for service or it may be eliminated, according to RFTA Chief Executive Officer Dan Blankenship.
RFTA buses currently provide limited service between Glenwood Springs and Rifle on what’s known as the Hogback route, named after prominent hills in the Interstate 70 corridor. However, those jurisdictions make token contributions or none at all, and the full-fledged paying members of the transportation system don’t want to subsidize the Hogback service any longer.
Pitkin and Eagle counties are RFTA members, as are Aspen, Snowmass Village, Basalt, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs and New Castle.
Blankenship said there are two philosophies among RFTA’s board of directors on how to get Silt, Rifle and Garfield County to join. Some people believe they will never join if they receive service for free. They favor the “stick” approach of stopping service and making those entities join. Others favor the “carrot” approach. They believe that if RFTA provides the service, Rifle, Silt and Garfield County will see the benefits and start to pay.
Rifle has never put the issue to a vote. Garfield County and Silt voters rejected a request in November 2004 to start a sales tax dedicated to RFTA. As a condition of that election, RFTA pledged it won’t cut service to western Garfield County for at least 18 months regardless of the outcome.
The clock is ticking on the deadline, and since the bucks stop in New Castle, RFTA is threatening that the buses must stop there, too. The question is, is it a bluff and will Garfield County, Silt and Rifle call it?
Glenwood Springs officials have opposed any cut in service in the past. As the second-largest contributor to RFTA, Glenwood wants to maintain service to western Garfield County because it benefits from transit for workers and shoppers.
Glenwood Springs Mayor Bruce Christensen said it is very important to the town that the Hogback service continue. On the other hand, as a RFTA director he understands and probably supports using service as leverage to get financial participation from Garfield County, Silt and Rifle, he said.
RFTA might have to stop service at New Castle and build a park-and-ride there for riders coming from farther west, Christensen said.
The Hogback service had about 57,000 riders last year, an increase of 15.5 percent over the year before, according to RFTA’s records. Through March 2006, ridership was up nearly 8 percent on that route.
Blankenship said it has the potential to grow even more, given the economic growth along the Interstate 70 corridor and the greater costs of driving a personal vehicle because of high gas prices.
RFTA’s position is that ridership would soar if all jurisdictions were contributing and full service was put in place. “The service we put out there is really a demonstration project,” he said.
Garfield County Commissioner John Martin said his board put the issue to voters and they rejected a county sales tax. Therefore, he said, voters have spoken and he doesn’t see a need to ask them again. Critics counter the ballot question was doomed to failure because the commissioners proposed the tax for all of Garfield County instead of carving out the area that receives service. County residents who didn’t live where there is bus service were naturally opposed.
Martin said many Garfield County residents still contribute to RFTA’s budget by shopping in towns that have the sales tax in place.
Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com.
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