Riders board a Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus at the Highway 82 intercept lot on a recent afternoon.

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority generates economic benefits of between $67 million and $88 million annually in Pitkin and Garfield counties, according to a study released last week by a Boulder nonprofit that advocates for energy efficiency and clean transportation.

The organization, Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, or SWEEP, received no money from the regional transit system to conduct the study, RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship said Monday. RFTA is seeking voter approval this fall for a 2.65-mill property tax throughout its service region.

SWEEP conducted a study of RFTA’s economic benefits about five years ago, Blankenship said. In early July, he asked Will Toor, SWEEP’s transportation program director, if he’d be interested in updating the study.

“They’re supportive of programs that are good for the environment, and they frequently advocate on behalf of transit and multi-modal trails and those kinds of things at the state Legislature,” Blankenship said. “Several months ago, I thought it would be good to update the study because the last one was done prior to implementation of BRT.” (RFTA added express routes known as BRT, or bus rapid transit, to its system in 2013. The service is known as VelociRFTA.)

In a news release, Toor pointed out that the economic benefits to the two counties far exceed RFTA’s annual operating budget of $34 million, of which $20 million is covered by local dedicated sales taxes. (He could not be reached for comment Monday prior to deadline.)

According to the study:

  • RFTA’s presence means significant fuel savings. Transit trips on the system reduced vehicle miles traveled in private cars by 29 million miles, saving 1.3 million gallons of gasoline. In 2011, the system reduced vehicle miles traveled in private cars by an estimated 19.6 million miles.
  • Use of public transit removes vehicles from the road, which helps to reduce congestion on the regional road network. SWEEP estimates that without RFTA, additional congestion would cost drivers just over $1 million.
  • Transit plays a critical role in matching employees to job opportunities along the Highway 82, Highway 6 and Interstate 70 corridors. Without transit, many jobs might not be filled, and some workers would have to seek public assistance, costing taxpayers money. The study pegs the 2018 potential for lost wages at $53 million and the potential increase in public assistance payments at $1.75 million. • Transit service means that destinations like Aspen and Snowmass Village don’t have to build costly parking structures for visitors or commuting employees, thus saving the communities up to $25 million.
  • About 65 percent of riders who take VelociRFTA routes could drive, but they prefer taking the bus.

“It’s not just transit riders who benefit,” Toor said in a prepared statement. “The entire community shares the benefits of reduced congestion, avoided public-assistance payments, reduced road-maintenance costs and reduced parking-infrastructure costs.”

The tax proposal will be included on the Nov. 6 ballot in Aspen, Snowmass Village, Basalt, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs and New Castle, as well as unincorporated Pitkin County and the section of unincorporated Eagle County that lies within the midvalley section of the Roaring Fork Valley. Estimates show that it would equate to $81 per year per $500,000 of assessed residential property value. Commercially, at $1 million of assessed value, the bill would be about $768 annually.

The tax would generate $9.5 million annually and is the linchpin of Destination 2040, RFTA’s planning effort for the next 20 years of improvements, which eyes replacing the lion’s share of RFTA’s 90-bus fleet, upgrading park-and-ride stations and pedestrian crossings, and partnering with other government entities on projects linking bus access to bike and pedestrian trails.

Blankenship said he understands that people will associate the timing of SWEEP’s release of the economic-benefit study results with the campaign for the property tax. That’s not a bad thing, he said.

“That’s partly why I talked with Mr. Toor: I don’t know that everybody understands the benefits [generated by] the RFTA organization,” he said. “When people are thinking about whether they want to contribute more resources to RFTA, I think it’s [appropriate] that they have some understanding of the benefits to them, the region and the local economy.”

Blankenship said the overall economic benefit to the region is probably greater than what’s listed in the SWEEP report. The study didn’t take into account RFTA’s own spending in the community through wages and salaries, contracts and other areas.

“I called Mr. Toor and asked him if he’d like to update the report. He could’ve said no, but he said yes, and I think it’s a pretty good report,” Blankenship said.

He said the study helps in other ways. “Reports such as this are also helpful resources for RFTA to have when we apply for grants,” he said.

In July, RFTA applied for a $22.9 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant to help expand its Glenwood Springs maintenance facility, and SWEEP’s 2013 study was cited by the transit agency in its application. More recently, RFTA forwarded the updated SWEEP study to the federal transportation department in advance of the final review of grant applications. “Frequently, when we apply for funding, we are asked to cite something that helps to quantify the environmental and economic benefits of the projects we propose, so the updated SWEEP study will be put to good use in the years ahead as we seek additional grant funding,” Blankenship said. “Again, no RFTA dollars were invested in the study’s update, other than minimal staff time spent in forwarding Will Toor’s data that RFTA already has on file, as well as a little staff time spent reviewing the draft.”

Blankenship said neither the SWEEP report nor RFTA itself urge people to vote for or against the ballot measure. As an employee of RFTA, he cannot spend dedicated work hours campaigning for the tax, and he noted during an interview Monday that any comments related to the election fell outside of his official eight-hour work day.

He said a campaign committee has been formed to help spread the word about the need for the new tax. It’s called On Board With RFTA, and a website (onboardwithrfta.org) containing information about the ballot item will go online within a few days. Soon, the committee will start raising money for campaign marketing funds.

Bill Ray, a public policy consultant who heads WR Communications in Denver, has helped RFTA with outreach efforts and surveys this year to gauge regional support for the property tax proposal. Blankenship said Ray will oversee the campaign.

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