RFTA Terminal

RFTA buses await travelers heading in myriad directions from the Rubey Park bus terminal on a recent afternoon. 

The public will get two opportunities today to provide input on the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s proposed 2.65-mill regional property tax during RFTA’s board meeting at Carbondale Town Hall, 511 Colorado Ave.

RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship said there will be two separate public hearings. The first one starts at 9 a.m. and is scheduled to run for up to an hour. A 30-minute presentation, along with a second public hearing that’s expected to begin around 10:30 a.m., will follow.

After that, RFTA’s board, which is made up of eight elected officials across the Roaring Fork Valley, will discuss the matter before a possible vote on whether to place the new tax on the Nov. 6 ballot. Support from a majority of voters throughout RFTA’s service area from Aspen to New Castle is required for the new revenue source to go into effect.

“We hope that people recognize that RFTA provides a necessary service for the region, and that we have needs as well,” Blankenship said Wednesday.

He acknowledged that the November ballot in some local jurisdictions will be stacked with requests for more taxes. Pitkin County is moving forward with plans to ask voters for a rate increase on the property tax that supplies revenue to the county’s Healthy Community Fund, which supports health and social-service programs throughout the valley. The Aspen Fire Protection District will ask voters to approve a 1.25-mill increase that would allow the district to build an affordable-housing complex and also assist with the purchase of new equipment and other needs.

“Some people have asked, ‘Why now? How come you can’t wait?’ Well, RFTA is made up of eight jurisdictions, and it is unlikely that one or more of them, or a special taxing district in those areas, isn’t going to have a ballot measure in any given year that they want to put before the voters,” Blankenship said. 

“If RFTA has to wait until nobody [presents a tax request], we’re never going to be able to go. There is never a great time.”

The ballot item would be put to voters 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 Roaring Fork Valley. Estimates show that the 2.65-mill tax would equate to $81 per year per $500,000 of assessed residential property. Commercially, at $1 million of assessed value, the bill would be an estimated $768 annually.

RFTA officials have been floating the tax concept at government meetings throughout the region since mid-April. Initially, transit authority officials spoke of the need for 3.65 mills. However, the results of a poll of area voters and additional feedback from elected officials led to a lowering of the potential tax rate, based on the widespread belief that 2.65 mills stands a better chance of passing.

The tax is the linchpin of Destination 2040, RFTA’s planning effort for the next 20 years of improvements, which will include 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. 

In addition, RFTA wants to replace about one-third of its fleet with electric buses. Other buses that run on diesel fuel and compressed natural gas would be replaced by vehicles with new and cleaner engine technologies.

Blankenship talked about the urgent need for another revenue source given the expected future growth in the valley and the large percentage of the workforce that depends on RFTA for its transportation needs. RFTA currently receives no property-tax revenue and depends on sales taxes contributed by local governments, as well as state and federal grants. 

Other monies come from service contracts — such as those with Aspen Skiing Co. for shuttles during winter seasons, and special routes in Rifle and Glenwood Springs — and regular rider fares throughout the area.

Blankenship said competing for grants with large, urban governments in Colorado and across the nation is becoming harder every year. And revenue from sales taxes and rider fares alone won’t allow RFTA to maintain its high standard of service.

“When we look at the information from the state demographer that says Garfield County is going to grow 65 percent between 2017 and 2050, and Pitkin County will grow 29 percent during that time frame, and Eagle County another 64 percent — and we’ve already seen how the midvalley is growing and so forth — then we are going to experience the same kinds of traffic congestion that we currently witness over on the Front Range,” Blankenship said.

“We need to be thinking down the road, and we need to be prepared for the growth that is coming at us,” he said. “What we’re requesting are funds to improve our services, to expand our maintenance capabilities, to be able to attract workers by providing affordable housing for them, and to do things to make our services more attractive and convenient for people. We want to set ourselves up to have the resources to make sure everything is maintained at a high standard, not a lavish standard, but a high standard.”

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