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Trails a critical part of future transit taxes

Aspen Times writer

This week the Roaring Fork Transit Agency’s board of directors agreed to go to the voters for a 0.2 percent sales tax increase, but decided not to earmark any of the revenue to valleywide trail construction. This is a bad decision politically, and leaves one wondering if RFTA intends to keep its promises about the trail system.The old Denver & Rio Grande Railroad corridor between Glenwood Springs and Woody Creek was acquired in 1996 with a dual purpose: mass transit and trails. This was the mandate from the start and it remains so today.In November 2000, when voters first approved a sales tax to help fund RFTA, the agency committed to dedicate 6.6 percent of those revenues to trails and corridor management, but that commitment has yielded few results.Yes, RFTA contributed $150,000 to the hiker-biker bridge over Highway 82 at Wingo Junction, but the Rio Grande trail now dead-ends in Emma. And the extension to Emma was accomplished by the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails Program, not RFTA. It’s understandable that trail development would slow down with the drop-off in tax revenue following Sept. 11, 2001. But that should not push trails off the agenda altogether. In fact, it should strengthen the board’s resolve to work on trails if it successfully passes a November 2004 measure.Undeniably, RFTA’s dual-purpose mission in the railroad corridor comes with a built-in conflict. Squeezing both a transit line – whether dedicated bus lanes or train tracks – and a recreational trail into a 19th-century right of way is no slam-dunk. But that is the reality of RFTA’s charge, and the agency should commit to it.This paper supported the RFTA board’s caution about a $900,000 offer from a steel salvage company to tear up the existing rails and regrade the rail bed. We don’t want the board to jump too hastily toward the $900,000, destroy the rail bed and end up hindering future transit service in the corridor. At the same time, we don’t want the board ignoring trails.Frankly, the board must take care of both missions.RFTA is first and foremost a transit agency, but an apparent case of “bus bias” is preventing the organization from keeping its promises – made during the valleywide RFTA election in 2000 – regarding the Rio Grande corridor. Nobody argues that running a valleywide bus service isn’t RFTA’s most important and most costly obligation, but it appears trails are being shelved almost entirely.RFTA has forecasted a $1.5 million shortfall in 2005 without a tax increase. It may well need this infusion. The agency has been clobbered in recent years by both declining sales tax revenues and rising gasoline prices. But to come back to the voters for more money while ignoring a basic part of its job is irresponsible – and will certainly draw fire from trail supporters during the campaign season.RFTA should earmark at least a small percentage of this proposed tax increase to trails.


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