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Debating the RFTA sales tax increase

By Dan Blankenship

The Roaring Fork Valley offers spectacular scenic beauty, outstanding recreational attractions, and abundant employment. No wonder so many people want to live in this amazing region! One does not have to venture far outside the steep mountains that surround us to realize that we live in paradise.

Yet, anyone who has been here for any length of time recognizes the challenges we face to preserve and pass on the vibrant quality of life that drew us here. Growth and development are powerful economic drivers that benefit many, while stressing the environment and eroding the indescribable essence of what makes this place special. It is not easy to find or maintain the balance between what is best for the inhabitants and the habitat which sustains us.

That so much of what once was still remains says a great deal about what our community values. The public has invested heavily in programs and services that make this a great place to live. The cost is considerable and rising as our numbers continue to grow. Sometimes it is tempting to say enough is enough, even when it isn’t. Our commitment waivers when faced with competing demands for limited finances, especially when prices are high and the economy is slowing down.

Why, then, is the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority (RFTA) asking voters to consider a tax increase during a global economic meltdown? Hey, any organization can get a tax increase approved when times are good! RFTA likes a challenge, plus we want to know whether people really, really, love us!

Seriously, the timing of the economic downturn is not exactly ideal from RFTA’s perspective. We’ve been developing our Bus Rapid Transit project for seven years. The decision to go forward with the ballot measure was made well before the economy started getting weirder than Al Yankovic. Although teetering financial institutions are grabbing the headlines now, RFTA is still banking on the character and optimism of the people it serves.

Concerns about economic security can outweigh less immediate considerations and test one’s resolve to place ideals above self interest. Survival is a powerful instinct that is difficult to override. Yet, when drifting on choppy seas of uncertainty, who can say whether it is better to chart a course and set sail or to cast anchor and wait for calmer weather? Tolerance for risk is intensely personal and choices often result in life-changing rewards or consequences.

When the stock market rises and falls so rapidly that it causes the speculators to suffer whiplash, who can be blamed for wanting to horde the pennies that remain? At times like these, it may be of small consolation to those who really need their pennies that they might benefit most from the improved transit services RFTA proposes.

The outcome of RFTA ballot question 4A hinges upon whether people believe the future has more to do with what we create than what we inherit. If I thought civilization had reached its zenith, and our best days were behind us, I would personally feed RFTA’s plans into the shredder; hopefully, before the power shuts down and Mad Max arrives to cannibalize the buses.

However, when the planet’s woes are measured in trillions of dollars, it is difficult to understand how the passage of a tax increase that will add 4 cents to $10 worth of purchases will make matters a whole lot worse. On the other hand, the increase will make things significantly better for anyone in our region that needs to travel by public transit.

With funding from 4A, the quality and convenience of RFTA bus services will be substantially improved for the growing number of people who are finding it cheaper to ride the bus than it is to drive their own cars. More of the money that these people save by riding the bus will get invested in our region instead of being used to build tropical gardens in the Middle East.

It’s great that gas prices are coming down, and I hope they stay low for as long as possible. In order to push prices higher, OPEC is planning to cut oil production in November by 1.5 million barrels per day. Sooner or later, we’ll find a way to escape OPEC’s diabolical clutches. Until then, it might be wise for us to increase our investment in public transit.

Thank you for your support!

By Steve Smith

The Roaring Fork Valley is home to excellence ” in scenery, recreation, education, civic involvement, music, and health care. So, too, should this valley be a world-class model for rapid, efficient, attractive public transit.

Instead, we keep making do with too-late, too-little incremental additions to an awkward, typically late, road-bound bunch of buses.

It is time to do better. Ironically, the best way to do that is to vote “NO” on new bus taxes proposed on this fall’s election ballot ” item 4A.

Not because investing in public transit is a bad thing. Indeed, expanding and improving transit probably is the most important public project that we can do in this valley to preserve the charm of our communities, to protect our crisp, clean air, and to save our very planet from carbon pollution.

This is so important that it must be done right.

Vote NO because this is the wrong plan, the wrong transit investment. It is an approach that will commit us, for decades to come, to a system with inherent limitations that ultimately will not be able to provide those benefits.

The Roaring Fork Transit Authority (RFTA), an outfit that just can’t seem to shake its bus dependence and bus image, now wants you to come up with another $45 million in public debt (actually more than twice that amount, including interest payments) just to keep things essentially as they are.

For that kind of money, we can do so much better.

Eight years ago, RFTA reorganized itself and secured voters’ approval for new taxes, promising that, with your new cash, it could provide fast, pleasant, on-time bus service up and down the valley every 15 minutes, reducing traffic volumes as it went.

Not only are we still waiting for that service, it’s part of the pitch again this year for yet another tax increase. Same unfulfilled promises, still asking for more money.

The bus company makes much of what sounds like big ridership ” 4 million last year. That is an impressive number until you realize that a large percentage of those rides occurred inside and near Aspen on free shuttles ” nice services, but not congestion relief or good service for the full valley.

More important, and whatever the bus rider counts, 60 percent of valley travelers still drive alone, according to a study of local and regional travel patterns jointly conducted by local governments. Even counting carpools, 80 percent of valley commuters travel by car.

The buses just aren’t cutting it.

Buses inherently have a limited attraction, especially buses that travel on the highway with all other vehicles. Those who must ride the bus will. Travelers with other options generally will not choose just another, bigger, less personal vehicle in which to get stuck in traffic.

Only when RFTA steps up with fixed-guideway transit, separated from the highway, using fast, pleasant, comfortable vehicles, will it ever break through to the larger commuting and tourist crowds and really put a dent in traffic and congestion.

Only when we the citizens of this valley insist on such real, high-quality transit will RFTA get the message and quit trying to make do with more overloaded buses.

The shopping list for your $45 million (actually, $99 million with the interest)? Fifteen new buses, something called “real time information for waiting passengers” (electric signs that report how late the bus is), an expanded bus maintenance facility, and ” maybe, if there is enough money ” something called “station improvements.”

Worse, the new tax proposal is based on hoping for the best of future circumstances ” planning with fingers crossed, you might call it. Already, RFTA is making contingency plans for what it calls “Scaled BRT” and “BRT Lite.”

Worst of all, such spending more deeply entrenches us in a buses-only system, making it closer to impossible to ever change.

Any transit is a good thing, but not just any transit is good enough ” not here. Forty-five million dollars can do so much more if directed toward a truly new transit system that charms us from our cars and makes travel in this valley a pleasure rather than a chore.

It’s time for change ” change in vision, change in equipment, change in direction. To raise this marvelous valley and its creative people above the inefficient ordinary, we must step up to the next level of transit to match our mountains ” and our valley.

Insist on doing better. Say “yes” to real transit by voting no on 4A.


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