After a contentious and ultimately fruitless meeting of three governments Thursday, the future of continued free buses between Aspen and Snowmass Village will be up to a Snowmass councilman who was not at the gathering.
The Elected Officials Transportation Committee (EOTC), comprised of the Pitkin County commissioners, the Aspen City Council and Snowmass Village Town Council, met for two-and-a-half hours to try to forge a compromise that would allow the popular service to continue.
The county commissioners and Aspen councilmen voted unanimously in favor of a proposal in which all three governments would pay nearly $480,000 of the $554,000 annual cost of the free service to keep it available year-round.
But Snowmass councilmen John Wilkinson and Fred Kucker voted against it, contending their town should not be on the hook for the remainder, which would fund free service in the summer. Snowmass Mayor Bill Boineau and Councilwoman Markey Butler were in favor of the compromise, but because a majority is needed on the boards of all three governments, the proposal did not pass.
Snowmass Councilman Jason Haber was absent. He will be the deciding vote, consultant and moderator Robert Schultz told the EOTC in the waning moments. The issue will likely soon be added to a Snowmass Town Council agenda so Haber can cast his vote.
Reached after the meeting, Haber said he will first confer with his fellow council members before deciding.
“I will keep an open mind,” he said, adding that a work obligation forced him to miss the meeting and that the deadlocked vote surprised him.
Aspen sees the majority of the benefits of the summer service because visitors to Snowmass Village take the free buses to visit Aspen, Kucker said. The cost of the summer service should then be split either between the two communities or all three EOTC members, he and Wilkinson argued.
Their comments followed a lengthy decision-making exercise Schultz designed to ascertain whether the governments were on a consensus path.
They weren’t. Members of the Snowmass council brought to the table a new alternative involving EOTC funding. About 82 percent of the revenue that the body brings in from a countywide half-cent transit sales and use tax goes to the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority to make up for the bus agency’s losses for operating the no-fare service. Two-thirds of the remaining funds go toward capital projects, including pools of money for a potential Entrance to Aspen and a Snowmass Village transit center, and the rest is discretionary spending that funds the free bus service.
The new Snowmass proposal called for changing the latter equation to 60 percent for capital and 40 percent for discretionary spending.
It was shot down. Aspen Councilman Steve Skadron said he was “not prepared to subordinate the importance of long-term capital interests to short-term operating matters.” Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland agreed, saying maintaining a pool of money for capital projects is critical because it shows federal officials, who can provide matching funds, that the money is there. Widening Highway 82 through Snowmass Canyon to four lanes to the roundabout could not have been done without such a capital pool, he said.
“I think it is interesting and unfortunate” that Snowmass representatives arrived with a “foregone conclusion,” said County Commissioner George Newman. He said he supported the recommendation by the subcommittee the EOTC and Schultz set up to hash out a compromise.
Aspen Councilman Torre, making undoubtedly the consensus statement of the evening, praised Schultz for “herding cats.” The effort to save the free service began two years ago. He said he preferred a compromise somewhere between an earlier Snowmass proposal and that of the subcommittee’s recommendation.
County Commissioner Michael Owsley said it was unfortunate that the argument boiled down to “a contest between Aspen and Snowmass.” In the decision-making exercise, he voted against both Snowmass proposals.
“They aren’t really in the spirit of compromise; they’re in the spirit of self-interest,” he said. “I find that unfortunate.”
Aspen Councilman Adam Frisch forged the compromise that ended in the Snowmass council stalemate. He suggested analyzing whether the $76,000-odd hang-up could be broken down, with perhaps the town of Snowmass paying half of that and the EOTC the rest.
Ireland took it a step further, saying that Snowmass could pay the summer cost and all three EOTC entities could pay for the rest of the year.
“I don’t really like it, but I think that’s where we’re going,” he said. “We might as well do it.”
Commissioner Rachel Richards suggested that Snowmass could use its “significant” funds devoted to marketing for the summer bus service cost.
Schultz finally asked the Snowmass council members if they were willing to compromise.
“I think we’ve exhausted our goodwill,” he said, noting Haber’s upcoming vote. “If [the proposal] fails, we’ll have to start over or live with” no free buses between the towns.