A RFTA bus picks up and drops off riders at the Highway 82 intercept lot in this file photo. According to the transit agency, a lower mill levy rate than what was originally bandied about by RFTA could be more favorable to voters this fall, but would require paring down the project list.

Thinking that a lower rate will be more palatable to regional voters, Roaring Fork Transportation Authority officials are now floating the idea of an annual 2.65-mill property tax to help fund improvements to its system over the next 20 years.

Previously, RFTA’s discussions and printed materials touted the possibility of a 3.65-mill rate. The lower rate was discussed with Snowmass Village and Pitkin County elected officials during meetings held on Monday and Tuesday.

A poll commissioned by RFTA, conducted in late May and early June, surveyed voters within its service areas across the Roaring Fork Valley. The results suggested that a property tax question centering on the 3.65-mill rate would result in a very close vote: 51 percent in support. Another response within the same poll lent credence to the idea that voters would respond more favorably to a request for a lower tax, RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship said.

“Of the no’s and the undecideds in the poll, if we go 1 mill lower, we picked up about 9 percent support with that,” said consultant Ralph Trapani, who works with the Parsons Corporation, a California-based engineering, construction and management support firm.

Blankenship and Trapani have been outlining goals for future capital projects and discussing the need for a new dedicated revenue stream since the spring. It’s all part of a campaign called “Destination 2040 – The Future Rides on RFTA.”

RFTA currently does not receive property tax revenue for its operations, maintenance and capital projects. The transit authority relies on sales taxes from the local jurisdictions it serves, plus federal and state grants. 

But officials say that given an aging fleet, expected growth in ridership and the need for improvements at stations and parking lots along its many routes from Aspen to Parachute, the current level of funding it receives is inadequate. RFTA serves an estimated 5 million riders per year, but revenue from fares only covers a portion of its service costs, officials have said in recent months.

RFTA’s board of directors has yet to decide whether to place a tax question on the November ballot. The board meets Thursday to further discuss its election prospects. It will hold a public hearing on the matter on Aug. 9.

In May at a board retreat, the board decided to advance the 3.65-mill option of four different tax scenarios, Blankenship said. That tax rate was expected to raise an estimated $14 million in annual revenue.

But after the polling information was presented to the board in June, board members spoke with elected officials and their constituents, and returned with the feeling that the tax question would have a stronger chance of success if the proposed rate were less than 3 mills, Blankenship said.

“And so staff and consultants went back to the drawing board, and we developed this list [of projects] based on 2.65 mills along with some revised exhibits that show how much per assessed valuation people would have to pay at that rate, residential or commercial,” he said.

The new estimates at 2.65 mills show that owners of residential property valued at $500,000 would pay around $81 per year. That compares with the 3.65-mill rate that estimates residential tax bills of $131 for property of the same value.

Commercially, at $1 million of assessed value, the bill would be an estimated $768 annually instead of $1,058, RFTA officials said.

During Tuesday’s meeting of the Pitkin County commissioners, Trapani listed certain projects that could be taken off the list of initiatives paid by a new property tax if the lower tax rate were to be passed. However, the cost of many of the stricken projects could be covered in other ways, such as through federal or state grants, or a proposed statewide sales-tax increase for transportation needs that will be decided by voters in November. 

Projects that might be removed from the list include the Aspen Junction and Carbondale park-and-ride lot expansions. But again, Blankenship and Trapani said there are other ways to fund those initiatives.

“These are just samples of things that could be done to get down to the 2.65-mill rate. There may be further discussions and negotiations about the project list,” Blankenship said.

“The voter can expect, if they pull the lever ‘yes,’ that a lot of these projects are going to get built,” Trapani said. “We don’t build a project list as part of a ballot initiative. This is a list that you can stand behind.”

As Blankenship put it, RFTA planners tried to be skillful in taking out some of the projects from the former list, “using a scalpel instead of meat cleaver.”

“If you’re going to drop down 27 percent, in terms of the mill levy … you’ve got to rein some things in,” he said.

At Tuesday’s meeting of Pitkin County commissioners, general support was expressed for the lower millage proposal.

“We’re hearing from business owners that they’re going to be hit hard,” Commissioner Patti Clapper said. “I think you did a great job and coming down on the mill levy is going to be huge. I think you just garnered my support.”

Blankenship noted that Commissioner George Newman and Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron were among many RFTA board members who provided input into the idea that a tax election might prove more successful if the proposed millage rate were lowered.

“I think this [lower rate] will resonate with voters, too,” Commissioner Steve Child said. Commissioner Greg Poschman called the 2.65-mill rate “a prudent approach.”

 RFTA has until Aug. 30 to decide whether to place a tax proposal on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Andre is a reporter for Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at andre@aspendailynews.com.