Transit authority could see spring vote |

Transit authority could see spring vote

Special to The Aspen Times

Creation of a valleywide rural transportation authority to fund public transit may require a pair of voter approvals, with the first coming as soon as next spring.

Elected officials representing governments from Aspen to Rifle gathered in Glenwood Springs Thursday to discuss a strategy for bringing the RTA into existence. The taxing district would fund regional transit service – like expanded bus service or a train – from Aspen to Glenwood and perhaps beyond.

The district would encompass Aspen, Basalt, El Jebel, Redstone, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs, New Castle, Silt and Rifle.

Getting a question regarding the proposed RTA before voters this fall, however, appears to be out of the question. Consultant Jim Charlier yesterday suggested a proposal to form the district could go to voters in a special election in May of next year, followed by a vote on a sales tax to fund it in November 2000.

A special district can be formed by special election at any time, but any question about taxation must be decided in a general election.

The authority would be funded by a $10 vehicle registration fee and a sales tax.

The two-phase ballot approach would allow the district to be formed, with voter approval, and partially funded through the registration fee. That would go a long way toward bailing out the financially strapped Roaring Fork Transportation Agency, which provides bus service in the valley. Because of declining ridership and sales tax revenues, it is facing a $500,000 shortfall in its 2000 budget.

“You need to do this whether you do rail or not,” Charlier said. “Your current [bus] system is not adequately funded.”

Sales tax revenues would allow greatly expanded bus service to Glenwood Springs and along the Interstate-70 corridor to Rifle, as well as service to Redstone.

But elected officials yesterday remained divided over the very concept of a rural transportation authority.

Garfield County Commissioner John Martin said his county would not support a transportation district whose boundaries extend beyond the county itself. That would take away local control – something the commissioners could not live with, he said. Garfield County would, however, consider forming its own district, collecting its own taxes, and providing its own transportation service, he said.

The various upvalley government representatives at the meeting supported the authority and the two elections.

Also a matter of debate is the exact allocation of operating costs among the local governments if a district is formed.

As presented by Charlier, the jurisdictions receiving the greatest benefit from transit service would pay the highest price.

Aspen, Pitkin County and Snowmass Village have by far the highest ridership on the current bus system, and would bear the lion’s share of the operating costs.

The annual operating cost for expanded bus service would run about $8.5 million annually without subsidies. With registration fees, sales tax revenues and government subsidies, that amount would drop to about $6.4 million.

According to figures presented by Charlier, some towns and counties would have to cough up more money than they are currently contributing toward RFTA.

Carbondale, for example, would have to ante up about $500,000 a year. Glenwood Springs would be stuck for $1 million. Glenwood presently contributes $10,000 annually to RFTA and Carbondale, $750.

Garfield County’s share would be more than $300,000. It now contributes about $15,000.

Pitkin County levies a half-cent transportation sales tax that raised $1.2 million this year to cover both local and valleywide bus service. It could easily cover the shortfalls of the other jurisdictions, Charlier suggested.

“There’d be backfilling [the shortfalls] by those that got for those that haven’t got,” said consultant Gordon Shaw of Charlier and Associates.

Each government would raise a different amount of sales tax. Given its excess revenues, Pitkin County would not have to raise additional taxes. Glenwood Springs would have to levy 0.3 percent to meet its share and Carbondale, 0.4 percent.

But the crucial question remains whether or not the voters will buy another tax hike. A 0.3 percent sales tax over and above Glenwood Springs’ existing sales tax would put its total at more than 7 percent (7 cents on the dollar), noted Glenwood Springs City Councilman Mark Adler. “That would be onerous to the voters,” he said. Voters will go for such a tax only “if there is a clear public good.”

The elected officials made no definitive decision about a May 2000 ballot question. That must be done in formal sessions, with the government officials acting in their official capacity.

What was clear from yesterday’s gathering was that if it were up to those present to decide, the outcome might be too close to call.

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