Transportation: Valleywide bus agency seeks sales tax hike for expansion
ASPEN ” The Nov. 4 election is all about service, from the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s perspective.
Voters in the region will be asked to approve a 0.4 percent sales and use tax increase, which amounts to 4 cents per $10 of taxable sales. The ballot issue is Referendum 4A on local ballots.
Voters in Aspen, Snowmass Village, Basalt, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs and New Castle as well as unincorporated Pitkin and Eagle counties will vote on the proposal. Those entities are already paying members of the transportation district. Voters in Silt will be asked if they want to join RFTA as a paying member.
For the measure to pass, the cumulative result must be favorable. Individual jurisdictions may vote for or against the proposal, but in the end all jurisdictions will either collect the tax or not.
If the measure is approved, the extra revenues will fund capital projects, such as new buses, and handle higher operating costs, like hiring more drivers for those buses. The expansion plan is called Bus Rapid Transit.
The tax hike will allow RFTA to offer better service to its existing riders and expand service to keep pace with increasing demands, according to Affordable Transportation Solutions, a citizens’ group campaigning in favor of the proposal.
“I think the election is all about relieving the pressure of standing-room-only buses and moving forward on a plan to upgrade the service,” said Jacque Whitsitt, chairwoman of the campaign group.
RFTA hauled a record number of passengers last year. The 4.45 million riders represented an increase of nearly 9 percent over 2006. Ridership has soared another 7.5 percent during the first half of 2008. RFTA predicts it will haul 4.75 million passengers this year.
The agency struggled at peak times this year to meet demand. Buses on popular routes such as Basalt to Aspen were filled to standing room only on some mornings last winter. RFTA didn’t have enough drivers to deploy extra buses.
“The reality is, we’re being forced to grow,” RFTA Chief Executive Officer Dan Blankenship said during a meeting of the agency’s board of directors last summer. Blankenship has said if new funding isn’t approved, RFTA will possibly be forced to make service cuts or be unable to address the peak demands.
Approval of the ballot question would allow RFTA to issue $44.55 million in bonds to buy new buses, construct more comfortable and inviting bus stops and invest in technology that would speed fare collections and provide real-time information about bus locations.
Revenues from the sales tax increase would repay the bonds and raise extra operating revenues. RFTA also applied for a $21.3 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration. Those funds, if granted, would help pay for the bus system improvements.
No comments against the proposal were submitted for the ballot. However, Jeffrey Evans of the Common Sense Alliance has questioned if the additional funding provides enough benefits for the expense. Mass transit cannot be cost-effective in an area with such a small population as the Roaring Fork Valley and lower Colorado River Valley, he clamed. Evans has written a series of online blogs on transportation issues. They can be found at aspenpost.net/author/common-sense-alliance.
The proponent’s website can be found at FasterCleanerCheaper.com.
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