Officials to fund free bus service in perpetuity

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Budget information for the March 20, 2014 EOTC meeting.

Source:/Pitkin County

Budget information for the March 20, 2014 EOTC meeting.

ASPEN – Upper valley politicians meeting as the Elected Officials Transportation Committee (EOTC) Wednesday agreed to fund the no-fare bus service between Aspen and Snowmass Village on a running basis, without continually re-visiting whether to support the amenity, which will cost $552,000 in 2014.

The informal decision came as part of a four-hour meeting in which the governing boards of Aspen, Snowmass Village and Pitkin County discussed ways to better manage the $5.1 million in annual tax income they are charged with spending, or saving, for regional transit operations and capital projects.

The no-fare bus service between Aspen and Snowmass Village on Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses has been funded since 2008, and was done so at first as an experiment. Most recently, in 2012, the free service was funded through 2016.

Along with the free skier-shuttle buses paid for by Aspen Skiing Co., which spends $2.3 million on transit with RFTA each year, the service has proved to convenient for, and popular with, visitors, residents and workers moving between the two ski towns. (SkiCo spends another $1 million a year on transit within the town of Snowmass Village, according to SkiCo spokesman Jeff Hanle.)

Managing the funds

The money managed by the EOTC comes from a half-penny sales and use tax passed by Pitkin County voters in 1993 to fund regional transit.

This year, the sales tax is expected to bring in $4.3 million and the use tax another $858,000.

Of the $4.3 million in sales tax, 81 percent, or $3.5 million, goes directly to RFTA to subsidize regional bus service, which saw 4.1 million riders last year.

The funding is meant to help keep traffic levels across the Castle Creek Bridge in Aspen below the 1993 level of 282,000 trips a year. Last year, there were 263,000 trips across the bridge.

The EOTC spends $137,000 a year to collect and administer the transit fund, and spends another $143,000 on other smaller transit projects, including an annual $100,000 contribution for bus service to the X Games.

Between revenue from the sales and use tax, and the spending on RFTA service and other smaller transit items, that will leave $1.4 million in the EOTC budget this year. That $1.4 million is then to be split into two different pots.

Two-thirds of it, or $936,982, is to be sent into a savings account for the potential construction of the entrance to Aspen project, which includes a new bridge over Castle Creek and four lanes of pavement across the Marolt-Thomas properties upvalley of the roundabout.

The remaining one-third — $469,000 — is sent into a discretionary fund for future transit projects.

The funding for the no-fare service has generally come out of the EOTC’s discretionary fund, but the decision to pay for the “free” buses has often come after extensive discussions each year by the elected officials.

On Wednesday, the officials from the three upper valley governments decided to build the $550,000 expense into the EOTC annual budget, and institutionalize the transit subsidy for buses between Aspen and Snowmass Village. The meeting was billed as a “retreat,” where officials discussed their priorities for the EOTC budget.

The decision means less money will flow into the entrance to Aspen fund and the discretionary fund.

The consensus on consistently funding the no-fare service emerged after extensive discussion of the current structure of the EOTC budget, which today includes savings accounts, or “lockboxes,” of $4.4 million for the entrance to Aspen and $5.2 million for a potential transit center at the mall in Snowmass Village.

Those two pots of money, for projects that are not likely to be built for years — if ever — have made it harder for elected officials to make spending decisions on transit projects as they come up.

The EOTC was set up so that money for transit can only be spent if all three local governments — Aspen, Snowmass Village and Pitkin County — agree on a particular project.

But despite each government having veto power over any new spending proposals, elected officials from Snowmass in 2009 wanted to see $7 million set aside for a future potential transit center at the mall.

And Aspen officials wanted to make sure they were saving for the entrance to Aspen, should a consensus ever develop on what to do between the roundabout and Main Street.

Over the last year or so, the elected officials have spent a lot of time figuring out how they could borrow from the Aspen and Snowmass “lockboxes” to pay for projects such as the new pedestrian underpass near the airport, and how, and if, they should pay themselves back.

On Wednesday, Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock, and Tom Oken, the county’s finance director, suggested the elected officials do away with the lockboxes and combine them into one capital-spending account.

“They have been counter-productive,” Peacock said of the lockboxes, noting that “this is really about trust among the three entities.”

Oken suggested that the EOTC should “have one savings account for your long-term projects, and when you get there, you decide” on how to spend it.

But Pitkin County Commissioner Rob Ittner, in office since 2009, said he strongly doubted whether officials in either Snowmass or Aspen would vote to walk away from their stash of funds for their potential future projects.

“It’s not gonna happen,” Ittner said.

However, the elected officials agreed to look at three budgeting scenarios, including one without the lockboxes, at their next meeting in June.

Editor’s note: This story was done in collaboration with the Aspen Daily News, which published it on Friday, March 21, 2014.

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