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  • Dylan Anderson

How would a Regional Transportation Authority impact Steamboat’s cash-strapped bus system?

Ahead of a regional RTA meeting next week, some Steamboat Council members question if the local network can handle adding more regional riders.



Steamboat Springs City Council members expressed some concern about how a Regional Transportation Authority could impact the city’s own transit system on Tuesday — a system the city is already struggling to fund.


Regional leaders are set to meet next week about the prospects of an RTA and discuss the results of an extensive study from consultant Fehr & Peers laying out what a regional transit system could look like.


But when City Council members got an update on the study ahead of that meeting, some showed concern about how increased regional transit could further tax the city’s local network. An RTA also does next to nothing to ease the city’s transit funding issues, an issue some council members said they should try to solve in parallel with an RTA.


“Why don’t we look at both of them as the same time,” said Council member Bryan Swintek. “I do not think we should wait to handle SST before we do an RTA. But why wouldn’t we take these both at the same time?”


“I support an RTA 100%. I support the passenger rail 100%, but once people get here I’m not okay with being like ‘Oh, we’ll figure it out,’ because we haven’t,” said Council member Amy Dickson. “How are we going to make sure that people are moving around Steamboat efficiently?”


“We need to have a robust SST because if people get here and can’t get around they’re not going to take the bus,” said Council President Gail Garey. “We need to look at these in tandem from a city of Steamboat Springs perspective.”


A majority of council members said they felt the city needed to address its own transit funding issues and that issue it was connected to the RTA. One idea tossed around was having part of a new tax fund the city’s portion of the RTA and part bolster SST funding. Council has often needed to cut transit service amid rising costs in recent years. Maintaining 2023 levels of service for 2024 required a 29% increase in budget for transit, putting it at roughly $6 million.


Trying to diversify the city’s funding mechanisms has become a goal of the new city council, with new members Swintek and Steve Muntean initially bringing it up as part of a conversation to add a second sheet of ice at the Howelsen Ice Arena. Last month, council floated the idea of forming a working group later this year to explore potential funding options.


While this “exploratory discussion” could lead to a ballot question to voters, Swintek said that wouldn’t happen until “2025 at the earliest.” Currently and RTA ballot question is slated for November of this year.

 

Talk of an RTA has been in the works for well over a year and the study discussed Tuesday was funded by the city, Routt County, Craig and Steamboat Resort.


Potential projects included in the final plan for the Regional Transportation Authority include a more robust Craig to Steamboat route, a circulator route in Craig, a dedicated route to the Yampa Valley Regional Airport, a Steamboat II route and some limited transit to South Routt.


On the infrastructure side, the plan could include funding to expand the Yampa River Core Trail more regionally, a fund to target safety-related improvements and a fund to support the prospects of passenger rail. The top three projects were identified as the regional route to Craig, the airport route and the Steamboat II route.


The study is seen as a sort of menu of options, with officials being able to pick and choose which projects they would like to pursue as part of an RTA. Depending on which projects are chosen, the annual cost of an RTA could be anywhere from $5.8 and $10.6 million.


How to fund an RTA will likely be a significant topic in next week's meeting. The study presents a variety of options including a property tax, sales tax and a motor vehicle tax. Steamboat Resort has also indicated it is willing to institute a lift tax to help pay for an RTA. Funding mechanisms could be different in different municipalities that are part of the RTA, and it could include a variety of mechanisms.


What’s clear though is that the RTA will not be a source of funding for the city’s transit network. While the RTA is expected to replace the regional route to Craig currently provided by Steamboat Springs Transit, the savings to the city would only be about $36,000 a year, according to Transit Manager Jonathan Flint.


Still, Council member Michael Buccino argued that the RTA would have other benefits to the city, like making it easier for workers to commute from more affordable bedroom communities.


“What we’re trying to do is help our workforce that is driving into this town,” Buccino said.


Several residents from western neighborhoods said they were very supportive of the additional bus route service to Steamboat II and the potential for funding for safety-related upgrades in public comment. Residents in Heritage Park and Steamboat II have frequently pointed to what they consider a dangerous situation crossing U.S. 40 on the west side of town.


But resident Bill Jameson questioned how council would sell the idea of an RTA to voters in Steamboat.


“You’re contemplating levying millions of dollars of taxes — either sales tax, property tax or something — on the residents of Steamboat Springs to save $36,000,” Jameson said. “How are you going to sell this to the residents of Steamboat Springs? … The squeeze isn’t worth the juice.”


“For climate, the juice is definitely worth the squeeze,” said Paul Bony with the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council in his public comment. “Transportation was identified as the second highest source of carbon emissions in the climate action plan.”


The regional RTA meeting is scheduled for March 20 in Hayden.


Top photo caption: A Steamboat Springs Transit bus passes through downtown. (City of Steamboat Springs/Courtesy)

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