There are plenty of transit carrots |

There are plenty of transit carrots

Mick Ireland
Aspen, CO Colorado

Let me apologize for making a remark in jest that you seemed to have taken as a threat. Paid parking is not intended to “get” anyone. And it is not intended to “ruin” someone’s life.

As to the substance of the column, my view is that “free parking” is a myth, an oxymoron that obstructs careful thinking about the relationship between traffic, parking and public policy.

The main complaint in your recent column seems to be that paid parking is all sticks and no carrots. That is not true. Let me list the carrots involved in Aspen’s traffic and parking program, each and every one of which I supported and campaigned for door-to-door:

In town free buses provide 1 million rides per year at a cost of almost $4 million in local tax money. As a local resident, I pay 0.15 percent sales tax to support that system. Auto users benefit from reduced congestion and the availability of more parking.

Local sales tax provides millions of dollars for Roaring Fork Transportation Authority (RFTA) service that has taken one million people off the road annually at the entrance to Aspen. RFTA is a heavily subsidized carrot that works.

We are building bus lanes and a new Maroon Creek bridge that will significantly reduce congestion and provide a faster, more convenient ride (aka carrot) for those using the system and thereby reduce traffic for those who cannot. Funding for that carrot did not happen by itself, some of us worked hard to get a local match that made it possible.

We have spent the money to study the traffic lights to minimize delays and asked Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) for permission to alter the lights. We do not control or pay for Highway 82. It is unfair to suggest that traffic light imperfections are intentional or easily fixed.

This summer, we will be spending at least $280,000 to provide a free bus from Aspen to Snowmass. We hope that “carrot” will further reduce congestion.

It is unfair to imply I have not supported better bus service. In the past 10 years, I have easily put 75,000 miles on my car traveling to meetings as an advocate for public transit expenditures. The Aspen Times has reported on zero of 200 or so such meetings, which might explain Andy Stone’s willingness to characterize me as opposed to adequate expenditures for transit.

My position and record on the governor’s task force advocating for public transportation expenditures is clear on that point. The meeting minutes are available. Only last week, I was invited to testify at the State House on transportation issues. Just last year, I was part of a team that helped RFTA secure $5 million worth of new rolling stock from the state SB-1 funding program. Again, that went unnoticed by The Aspen Times.

To call the bus system funky and overcrowded might be more reflective of Andy Stone’s feelings than the reality. In a record snow year, there are capacity issues but not because local government doesn’t care. We simply don’t have the resources to upgrade and build service and hire drivers quickly.

I don’t think the new, quieter, more comfortable hybrid buses we already have purchased and committed to buy in the future can be called funky or nasty. Anyone familiar with my work at the state level, the regional level or my votes at Executive Office of Transportation and Construction (EOTC) would laugh at the notion that Mick Ireland does not support a public transportation system that could handle increased ridership.

The reality is we have provided millions of dollars in carrots for auto users and bus riders ” bridge improvements, bus lanes, garages, new buses, increased service levels and new equipment. Aspen taxpayers provide more than $5 million annually for transit. Pitkin County provides additional millions. To call local government “stick specialists” is unfair and not supported by the record.

“Free” parking is a myth. Someone has to subsidize the parking garage or the street on which we park. Streets wide enough to provide parking require more maintenance, plowing, drainage and resurfacing. None of that is “free.”

In the last 18 years, this community has spent $18 million subsidizing the parking garage a block from The Aspen Times. The $18 million represented an indirect subsidy to auto users, and is above and beyond the user fees collected and spent for maintenance of the facility.

Each user of the garage benefitted from a subsidy of more than $14 per use above and beyond any fees paid for parking. The garage has never paid for the cost of staffing and maintaining the facility on an annual basis, and the $18 million has gone for construction and debt service and part of the maintenance. In the future, parking revenues on the streets will support the garage.

Andy Stone does not use the garage a block from his work site because he is engaging in rational decision making ” why pay for something when you can have the same service at no cost and with greater convenience? If we eliminate the inconvenience of moving the car every few hours, won’t more garage users park all day on the streets for “free,” for the same logical reasons? Free parking on the streets means more tax money to operate the garage because its costs are pretty much fixed (depreciation, staffing and cleaning).

Parking policy and traffic are related. Vehicle trips are at the same level as 1993 because we have provided the multimillion dollar carrots described above and because we had the courage to adopt paid parking in the downtown core. After paid parking was adopted, vehicle traffic actually declined and bus ridership increased. Paid parking worked.

Although vehicle levels are roughly the the same as in 1993, we have an additional million people a year entering town on the bus system. Traffic congestion at the entrance is intolerable. We now must either manage demand or increase supply. The voters have rejected two solutions that I supported (preferred alternative, light rail).

Other alternatives (Split-Shot, three lane bridges and roundabouts) will mean local tax burdens because it is abundantly clear that the state does not have the money to maintain the present state highway system, let alone expand it. Further RFTA service or BRT service will be expensive.

Paid parking does not necessarily mean “more militant enforcement.” A permit or bar code system for users could be designed to allow a certain number of free trips per month, acknowledging that we all have to drive some times. It also could be more convenient than parking meters, with automatic billing and discounts for users who agree to use bar code stickers rather than meters. And we could give cash rewards or parking permits (aka carrots) to people who don’t park on the streets, as the city does now for 123 employees who agree to commute by bike, on foot or by bus.

Excessive auto use has jeopardized this nation’s security and contributed to global warming. I believe we all need to modify our behavior to cut down on auto use. That doesn’t mean we can’t drive but it does mean we should think carefully before we rip people for suggesting that we reduce our subsidies for auto use in the form of “free” parking. I am very proud that so many city employees, locals and council members have decided to minimize their auto use and walk, bus or bike to work whenever possible. We can win the global warming fight and reduce dependence on foreign oil if we are willing to endure a little inconvenience.