Transportation is a challenge in a community that's 40 miles long. Aspen businesses rely on workers commuting and, with only one road in and out of town, it can lead to problems. In the next 20 years, the valley’s population is expected to grow, which means more traffic. This fall, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority (RFTA) hopes voters will invest in their bus system.
Rubey Park Bus station in Aspen bustles with people. A strong smell of diesel accompanies the constant rumble of idling buses. Carl Heck is one of some 20,000 daily riders; he lives in Aspen and takes a bus to and from work. Especially as the weather starts to get cooler.
“In the winter I use it probably five days a week,” said Heck. He doesn’t just like the busses, he also hates traffic, and he sees public transportation as a way to cut down on congestion in town.
“Traffic is a major problem in this valley and it’s never going to improve. The more people we put on buses, the better it’s going to be for traffic. It’s not rocket science,” said Heck. He’ll vote "yes" on Ballot Issue 7A, which asks voters to approve a property tax that will fund maintenance and expansion of RFTA’s systems.
If passed, it’s expected to bring in $9.5 million in its first year. RFTA is the largest rural transit system in the United States, and the second largest transportation system in Colorado behind RTD on the Front Range.
An independent study by The Southwest Energy Efficiency project estimates the economic impacts of RFTA exceed $80 million by providing rides for workers and visiting skiers alike.
“We really don’t have any peers out there for what we do,” said RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship.
As the Roaring Fork Valley grows, RFTA has tried to keep pace, and this has led to some growing pains.
RFTA can levy up to a 1 percent sales tax. They’ve maxed out this option in Glenwood Springs and Carbondale. While they can still levy additional sales taxes in Aspen and Snowmass village, that money could only be used for local projects, not regional ones. So, they’re trying something new.
RFTA currently has 88 buses in its fleet, many of which need to be replaced in the next five years. An experiment to test environmentally friendly electric busses is also in the works, which will test the viability of battery-powered busses in a high-altitude environment.
Blankenship says RFTA can't make up the budget increase in fares alone. Studies by the Federal Transportation Administration show that when fares increase, ridership drops.
Money from 7A isn’t just for the blue buses zipping along Highway 82. The bicycle share service, We-Cycle wants to expand down-valley. There’s a proposed trail to connect Glenwood Springs and Newcastle.
According to a poll of likely voters, 7A is a toss-up.
John Martin is a Garfield County Commissioner. Though the county isn’t a RFTA member, it does help pay for services. Martin is opposed to levying this new tax, and thinks his constituents pay enough.
“Day-to-day living is tough; they just can’t take any more taxes,” said Martin.
He’s doesn’t think RFTA should grow and isn't convinced a tax is the best way to do it if it does.
Not growing would mean cutting current services by 23 percent according to RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship, which comes at a cost for commuters.
“We won’t be able to do what we’ve been doing in the past, to try to keep traffic at a reasonably sane level,” said Blankenship.
Question 7A will be on all ballots from Aspen to New Castle. Those ballots are mailed on Monday.