The Nov. 6 election marks the first time the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority has ever sought out a property tax.
Garfield County’s Ballot Issue 7A addresses RFTA’s request for a 2.65 mill levy to, among other projects, improve bus rapid transit and local bus services (and in turn reduce congestion on Highway 82); increase mobility for pedestrians, cyclists and transit users, purchase new buses (a combination of battery electric and diesel) and work on construction and maintenance of transportation facilities (like park-and-rides and bus stops).
Why a property tax?
RFTA is authorized by state statute to levy up to a one percent sales and use tax upon voter approval. In Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, it has already levied this one percent. With these two regions capped, they decided on an alternative region-wide property tax; while property values may be higher up valley, everyone would still be paying the 2.65 mills, says Dan Blankenship, CEO of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority.
Assuming the 6.11 percent property assessment rate forecasted by the Legislative Council holds true for property taxes assessed in 2019 and collected in 2020, the tax would result in an increase of $6.75 per month, or $80.95 annually, to the tax bill of someone with a home at an actual value of $500,000. A 7.2 percent residential assessment rate will remain in effect for the 2018 assessment and cost $7.95 per month, or $95.40 per year.
For the 2019 assessment of a commercial property with an actual value of one million dollars, the numbers would come in at $64.04 per month, $768.50 annually. The 2018 assessment rate entails about $54.35 per month or $652.21 annually.
What do we get out of it?
Blankenship explains a few ways in which Carbondale would benefit if the tax rate is approved. After 8:15 p.m., bus frequency would increase to every half hour (as opposed to the current “every hour” system) for buses going down valley from Aspen to Carbondale. Right now, Blankenship says it’s a disincentive for people who live down valley but work up valley and get off later, or for people who want to go up to Aspen who don’t get off work during the peak periods; if they miss the bus, they have to wait a whole hour to catch another one.
In addition, BRT services would be provided not just during the week, but on the weekends year-round. RFTA is also looking at service improvements to extend BRT from 27th street to Glenwood Springs, which would make it easier for people in Carbondale to get to Glenwood for, say, a soak in the hot springs or some shopping. Serving as a more direct route for people coming from Carbondale, the local bus would also change its route to go across Grand Avenue bridge, making it unnecessary for passengers to transfer buses.
“We’re woven inextricably into the fabric of the communities we serve,” says Blankenship. “Our goal is not only to address current needs, but to look into the future to try and develop projects and services that will make getting around the valley more convenient for people. And we want to make it as safe and affordable as we can.”
He says that down the line RFTA would look to implement family bus passes as well, which would minimize fares for families looking to take day trips or go up valley to ski.
What about the circulator?
In terms of expanded circulation services in Carbondale, Blankenship says equity is an issue.
Communities like Glenwood Springs and Aspen finance their internal circulator services, and if RFTA were to expand Carbondale’s, the other communities may feel they should have their circulator services funded by the region too, which would drive up RFTA’s costs exponentially.
While Mayor Dan Richardson admits he’s a “bus junkie who would love to see a circulator all around town every 15 minutes,” he doesn’t believe expanding the circulator is the most cost-effective approach for RFTA and its riders. An expanded circulator would demand more buses and drivers, as well as an increased frequency of buses, “…and the costs would be exorbitant,” says Richardson. “And then if you think about the cost per ride, it gets even more expensive.”
He says the focus should be geared towards exploring different avenues and mechanisms to subsidize last-mile alternatives — like Uber or WeCycle — and increase the mobility of the community, without increasing fares.
How did we get here?
This 30-year tax plan is the result of more than two years of RFTA board members brainstorming and determining current and future needs. The board has met with 30 different stakeholders, including the public. They’ve developed a list of alternatives and continuously refined it. They looked at going up to 5 mills, going down to 3 mills, going back up to 3.65 mills, and then eventually settled on 2.65 mills. This required constant revising and prioritizing of different projects to determine which initiatives hold the highest priority.
“I want the public to know we had those same discussions they were having [about a single sales tax and the overall rise in taxes in the communities served by RFTA] months ago and I think it was the board’s preference to not ask for a property tax,” says Richardson. “But the reality of it is our sales tax is effectively tapped out across the region and if voters want RFTA to continue to keep up with demand as our community grows, then it’s our responsibility to give them an option.”
Richardson goes on to say that RFTA doesn’t have to expand the property tax, but that the board put a lot of time and effort into thinking about how to best service the community, “… and hopefully the voters trust the analysis was done. And if they don’t, that’s ok. We’ll design the system around the revenues we have.”
“If we are not successful, then we’ll just be asking the community which direction they want us to go in the future,” concludes Blankenship.