Where do we go from here?
If Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is about to drive RFTA off a fiscal cliff, nobody will notice until we hear the crash.
Memo to all 43 elected officials in the RFTA service area:
Wake up and start paying attention!
However politically expedient it may be, or whatever your personal bias, the abandonment of your fiduciary responsibility while you ride on the transit bandwagon is a luxury we can no longer afford. Except for the freshly elected, all of you share responsibility for a $650,000 BRT planning effort which left out the basic information needed to determine if BRT should ever have been proposed. You didn’t bother to find out what the average occupancy is on valley bus routes, the actual number of bus runs currently at capacity, or whether recent service improvements have already addressed whatever overcrowding exists. You didn’t ask for ridership projections on the routes affected by the plan, or whether BRT will leave the existing local bus route along Highway 82 running virtually empty. The entire process was a massive malfeasance of oversight and due diligence.
Although the perception exists that a tough economy will increase bus ridership as individuals seek ways to save money, the one example we have for guidance does not support that view. In 2002, after the economic downturn caused by 9/11, ridership on RFTA’s fare producing routes declined by 11 percent.
From the $6 million sales tax increase voters just approved, $2.76 million per year could go to paying off bonds if RFTA issues the full amount authorized. That will leave another $3.24 million in new sales tax revenue for other expenses. Using 2007 costs and proposed 2014 service increases, we find that the additional $3.24 million income projected for next year will need to grow to $10.65 million in five years to cover the 2014 expenses. However unlikely that income growth seems, try the same exercise with an assumption for a recessionary 10 percent drop in fare and sales tax revenues, and RFTA is broke at whatever point they put their new bus service on the road.
The way forward is abundantly clear for any group of government officials concerned with honoring the public trust, making sound fiscal decisions, and working from solid information rather than ideological faith.
Take heed of the note in RFTA’s 2007 audit that, “The Authority’s long-term plan has indicated a need to build reserves,” and do so.
Do not bond for any money beyond the $10 million expansion of maintenance facilities which RFTA claims they need regardless of the BRT plan. Consider bonding in the second year for an automated ticketing system and some bus stop improvements if tax income isn’t sufficient for outright cash purchase. Automated ticketing is one of the most obvious efficiency improvements, and could also be designed to provide the precise Boarding and Alighting ridership data needed to determine what other upgrades are warranted.
Delay any bus acquisition for the purpose of implementing the BRT system until you have gathered the ridership data you need to assess the value of the proposal. It is simply incredible that any public agency could propose hundreds of millions of dollars in expenditures based on the quality of the information currently available ” and not be challenged by elected officials.
All of the above pales to insignificance compared to the need to look at transportation planning as a whole. BRT is a wildly extravagant luxury at a time of national economic crisis and critical local need. Even after the construction of a new maintenance facility, the remainder of the RFTA bonding authority is nearly enough to construct a new Entrance to Aspen. That such a basic infrastructure need could go unfunded in favor of a lavish transit plan intended to benefit a small fragment of the traveling public ” a fragment that may not even exist ” is very nearly criminal.
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A driver looking to squeeze one last four-wheel drive up Aspen Mountain discovered that it’s not the ascent but the descent that poses a challenge.