Valleywide trail dream going nowhere fast
Roaring Fork Transit Authority officials say they will need another boost from taxpayers in order to keep a promise to complete a trail from Aspen to Glenwood Springs.When RFTA seeks a sales tax increase from valley voters in November, part of its pitch will be to raise additional funds for trail construction. RFTA’s board of directors has set a policy to complete the trail to Glenwood Springs by 2010, but that doesn’t appear realistic due to budget woes.Since November 2000, when valley voters first approved a sales tax as a funding source for the agency, no money has been spent on trail construction. RFTA contributed $150,000 to the pedestrian bridge over Highway 82 at Wingo Junction, but it hasn’t extended the trail past the Pitkin County line in Emma. The Pitkin County Open Space and Trails Program funded trail construction to Emma.In the November 2000 election, RFTA committed to dedicate 6.6 percent of sales tax revenues to trails and corridor management. The wording proved ambiguous. The agency counts the time its attorney spends on trails issues as money spent on trails, for example.But Mike Hermes, RFTA director of trails and lands, noted that the agency has invested money on surveys, studies and other preparation work necessary before trail construction can begin.Nevertheless, the agency’s lack of construction tries the patience of some trail supporters. Dale Will, executive director of the county trails and open space department, has publicly expressed dismay on a number of occasions about RFTA’s inability to make progress.”Yes, I have concerns about [trail funding] continuously falling to the bottom of the pile,” Will said. “I have been fairly outspoken on my views of the trail.”The latest example came this week when Will wrote a letter to the editor questioning why RFTA wouldn’t let a salvage firm tear up track between Glenwood Springs and Emma. A company was going to pay for the track, which it would sell as scrap, as well as grade the rail bed to the point where it could be used for an unpaved trail. RFTA’s board declined to accept the offer.Will said it’s the latest example of delaying a trail that could become reality in a few short years in favor of train service that may never happen.Other RFTA policies also hamper trail construction. The board won’t allow the rail bed, where the steel rails are, to be used for a paved trail unless placing it elsewhere in the corridor would boost prices 30 percent or more higher.RFTA board member and Snowmass Village Councilman Arnie Mordkin said those policies simply reflect that the old Rio Grande Railroad right of way was purchased first and foremost for resurrection of rail service.Trail construction hasn’t progressed, Mordkin noted, because sales tax revenues since 2001 have been drastically below projections.Without a sales tax increase in November, RFTA’s financial plan anticipates spending $807,000 for trail construction from 2005 through 2010, according to agency director Dan Blankenship.If the agency seeks a 0.2 percent sales tax increase in November, as expected, the funds dedicated for trail construction would increase to $4.23 million, he said. (The bulk of the new revenues would be used to beef up bus operations.)Without the additional funding, a lot of people in the Roaring Fork Valley would die of old age before the trail is completed to Glenwood. Hermes said a paved trail costs between $250,000 to $300,000 a mile to build.Approximately 18 miles of trail is needed to complete the valleywide route. Without additional funding, RFTA could construct about three miles of trail.Even with additional funding, there is a danger the funds earmarked for trails could be siphoned off to other operations. That has some people suggesting that RFTA tied down new funds to trail construction in the November election.”If it’s just a pot of money, trails will always lose,” said Jacque Whitsitt, former RFTA board chairwoman and current chair of the MidValley Trails Committee. Whitsitt and Will favor specifying funds for trails in the ballot question wording.Mordkin said it is “unwise to lock [the funds] down.” RFTA has expressed its intent to complete the trail, he noted, but unforeseen budget issues arise.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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