Transit debate heats up at first of three forums |

Transit debate heats up at first of three forums

Allyn Harvey

Some of the most familiar faces in the decade’s long debate over mass transit lobbed rhetorical and statistical bombs at each other last night in the first of three local forums leading up to next month’s general election.

For both sides, the argument boiled down to a simple cost-benefit analysis, but the problem was neither side could agree on the costs or benefits of expanding bus service throughout the valley.

Common Sense Alliance spokesman Jeffrey Evans, arguing against two of three transit questions on the ballot, called for an end to all new investment in mass transit – whether rail or buses – until the widening of State Highway 82 is completed. More than once, he questioned spending more money on a system that, according to Evans, only serves people who are either too old, too young or too broke to travel by car.

“Congestion is solved by expanding capacity,” he said. “Mass transit may be a nice amenity for those who need it, but it cannot be sold on the basis of improving congestion. The numbers simply aren’t there.”

But the people sitting across the table had their own, equally hard analysis of the costs and benefits.

“The problem with Jeffrey’s solution is that Aspen is a dead-end town. Mass transit makes a big difference in the intersections and side streets here, where a bus full of 30 or 40 people means 30 or 40 fewer cars,” said Aspen Mayor Rachel Richards.

Pitkin County Commissioner Leslie Lamont pointed out that bus service out of Glenwood Springs runs once every two hours, and even at midday, when ridership is normally at its lowest, the buses are often standing room only, which Lamont says indicates the demand is there to justify the added service.

But for that to happen, Lamont and others who would expand service say a regional taxing district known as a rural transportation authority (RTA) is needed.

“We could kind of burrow in in the upper valley with regards to these issues. The important thing about the RTA is we’re all working in the valley together,” Lamont said.

Last night’s forum addressed three related transportation funding questions on the Nov. 7 ballot.

Referendum 2A asks voters in Aspen if they are willing to impose a 1-percent tax on hotel and lodge rooms to fund in-town bus service (see related story). Referendum 1A asks Pitkin County voters to allow the county to use existing tax revenues to borrow $10.2 million for a variety of projects, including safety improvements at bus stops, new buses, a loan to RFTA to help it purchase housing that will be rented to its employees and the Snowmass Village Transit Center. If approved, some of the money from Referendum 1A will be used to try and entice CDOT to finish the highway project all the way into Aspen.

And Referendum 4B/4C asks voters in seven jurisdictions in the valley if they want to form a new agency, an RTA, to extend bus service to Rifle and increase the number of runs from Glenwood to Aspen from one every two hours to one every half-hour.

There were three separate debates at the St. Regis Hotel in Aspen, each running an hour, more or less. Evans debated Rachel Richards on Referendum 1A in the first hour. In the final hour, he and Glenwood Springs attorney Walt Brown faced off with Lamont and Snowmass Village Mayor T. Michael Manchester over the RTA.

In both debates, Evans expressed serious doubts about the motivation behind the elected officials who are backing the measures, announcing repeatedly that the questions about RTA and the $10.2 million were really a front for the efforts to build a commuter rail system.

“There are a lot of potential solutions to this problem, but they’ve designed it in a way – with a $1.1 billion tax base – so they can go back to the federal government in a few years and borrow $250 million or $300 million for a train,” he said.

He urged the officials to devote more of the money raised through the existing 1.5 percent sales taxes in Pitkin County and Aspen to RFTA, at least until the highway expansion is completed all the way to Buttermilk and valley residents have a chance to see the effects.

But Manchester pointed out that rail is no longer an option without a valleywide vote. Lamont added that she hoped rail would never be completely rejected as an option, just as she hopes people around the valley will support expanded bus service through the RTA.

“If people think we need to stop planning for the future because it’s too expensive or they just don’t see a need for it right now, I would say just look at what it took to four-lane Highway 82. It took decades,” she said.

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