Allyn Harvey: Transit picture disappointing
September 23, 2003
In 2000, elected officials from the upper valley campaigned hard throughout the valley to create a rural transportation authority.
They promised voters vastly improved bus service if only they would come out in favor of funding it with a dedicated sales tax in each and every community.
By varying margins voters bought their line, voting to either shift existing taxes or create new ones to fund the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority.
Three years later, some of their promises have come true, such as hourly service to Glenwood and less regular service to Rifle. But if the 2004 budget picture proves to be as dismal as RFTA is predicting, bus service will actually be worse next year than it was in 1999, the year before regional funding was authorized.
RFTA is looking to lay off employees and cut service throughout the valley. Under the proposed cutbacks, early morning commuters won’t be able to ride the bus until after 6 a.m., and late-night revelers won’t be able to catch a ride home after 12:15 a.m.
It is hard to imagine a cutback that would do more to make RFTA irrelevant.
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At first glance, it seems like the economy is to blame. After all, every community in the valley has seen only lackluster growth in sales tax collections, if they’ve seen any growth at all. But a closer look shows that RFTA’s real problem isn’t a shortage of funds, it’s a shortage of political leadership.
Downvalley, the Garfield County commissioners, long the freeloaders of local transit, continue to act like a bunch of ungrateful teenagers. This year, as in past years, they have paid little or nothing for bus service that benefits thousands of their constituents.
Meanwhile, elected officials from Aspen, Snowmass Village and Pitkin County are sitting on a dedicated transportation fund of $12 million, and growing. Most recently, they discussed spending millions on a parking lot at the intersection of Brush Creek Road and Highway 82 and using the rest to somehow leverage money from the state and federal governments to replace Maroon Creek bridge.
The parking lot is apparently needed for big events like the Labor Day jazz festival, and for future employees at the yet-to-be-built Base Village to park their cars and transfer onto a shuttle to their jobs. Snowmass Village officials claim the parking lot as their piece of the transit-fund pie, which is filled by the half-penny transit sales tax.
Whatever. If you ask me, the parking lot smells an awful lot like a subsidy for the Labor Day festival organizers and the corporations developing Base Village and Snowmass Center. And those elected officials are daydreaming if they think the state or the feds are going to find any extra bridge-building money for the poor little rich boys and girls of Aspen and vicinity.
For most of the 1990s, the residents and elected officials of Aspen and Pitkin County were true leaders in public transportation.
They taxed themselves and built a world-class bus system – the second largest in the state after Denver’s. They worked with downvalley governments to purchase the railroad corridor before it was lost forever on the free market, creating unique opportunities for a valleywide trail system. And they gave serious consideration to valleywide rail. And once the idea proved premature, they turned their energies on creating RFTA.
That’s why it’s so disappointing, and a little confusing, to now see those same “leaders” dreaming of parking lots and highway bridges, when they should be looking for ways to shore up a fantastic but struggling transit system.
Bus riders and the voters who back them deserve more, and so does everybody else.
[Allyn Harvey is assistant editor at The Aspen Times. His column appears every other Tuesday]
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