MOUNTAIN VILLAGE – A new study presented on Monday to officials from Telluride, Mountain Village and San Miguel County by Montrose Assistant City Manager Rob Joseph examined the feasibility of a Montrose-based public transit system, perhaps recharging stalled discussions about the formation of a Regional Transit Authority.
According to the study, Montrose is not currently interested in participating in an RTA, but Joseph’s presentation emphasized other funding and structural alternatives to forming an RTA and urged regional representatives to explore those options.
At the end of Joseph’s presentation at a regular Intergovernmental Meeting, which followed an discussion of how San Miguel County jurisdictions can’t agree among themselves about forming an RTA, Mountain Village Mayor Dan Jansen directed staff that form a committee representing San Miguel County governments to include Montrose in future discussions.
Jansen also agreed that although Montrose does not want to join the RTA proposed for San Miguel County, there “could be an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) with them to start or expand some services.”
Two Decades Of Discussion
For at least 20 years, public officials around the region have been in talks regarding the formation of an RTA, but unable to agree on anything other than the need for better public transportation. Jansen neatly summarized the ongoing cause of the stalemate, stating, “The need for an RTA has been identified, but how to meet that need is still under debate.”
If there was any consensus among officials at Monday’s meeting, it was that while there is a need for an RTA, it has been and remains almost impossible to figure out a way to implement one that would make everyone happy.
A number of steps would be necessary to organize an RTA, including the finalization of an IGA by the entities that participate (with two hearings for each entity required by state law), and the crafting of a ballot measure by the entities at least 60 days prior to a regularly scheduled election. Voters would then need to approve it, with each jurisdiction voting on whether to join the RTA. Last month, the San Miguel County entities gave up on trying to meet the timetable for a ballot question this year.
Telluride Councilor Bob Saunders said that he does not believe an RTA ballot issue can pass, and that “we need to take the time and make the compromises we need to make to make it possible for people to live here, rather than commute from out of town.”
Jansen agreed that “there are still a handful of issues to hash out, which different towns will have differences of opinions on, such as whether the gondola would be included, funding, and whether second homeowners would be included in the voting process. We will have to work on compromises in order to have a progressive outcome.”
Joseph’s study attempted to give representatives from around the region renewed hope that a solution can still be reached if the City of Montrose is included.
The RTA feasibility study addressed the costs, benefits and challenges of building and funding a public transportation system that would serve Montrose, Telluride and Mountain Village.
“This study came about from a meeting with council members from Mountain Village, Telluride and Montrose,” Joseph explained. “We met this past november and agreed that these three towns need a dependable, safe and cost effective cross-county public transit system.”
Joseph took care to clarify that his report was not about tourists or tourism, but that his study was focused on determining whether a transit system would be supported by residents and local businesses and business owners.
As part of his study Joseph posted a survey on the City of Montrose’s website and reported that over a two-week period he was able to get feedback from over 40 businesses and 228 individuals. According to Joseph, 50 percent of business owners surveyed said that they would be willing to subsidize transportation costs for their employees, especially if it was structured as a monthly fee and they would receive discounted costs for participation.
Although the survey was primarily geared toward businesses and business owners, Joseph said a significant number of returned surveys included individual comments indicating support of a public transportation system for reasons beyond simply commuting.
“I know many people in Montrose who would love to hop on a bus and come up to Telluride or Mountain Village without worrying about driving,”Joseph said. “From a tourism standpoint also there would be incredible benefits.
“Right now only 10 percent of the population can really afford to visit Telluride,” he added. “So last ski season we experimented with a program where we had a shuttle in Montrose to bring people to Telluride. The program was relatively successful and people really enjoyed being able to come up here and ski, but then stay in a more affordable town. And it didn’t take away from Telluride’s tourism base, just put more skiers on the mountain who would then stay after and spend money.”
Joseph went on to list several funding options for the transportation system, noting that although an RTA could be an option, Montrose does not favor an RTA at this time. He speculated that “eventually if we fund this project another way and it works people will see how successful it is and might be more likely to want to buy into the idea of an RTA), but for now we need alternatives.”
Some of the alternatives he identified were a sales tax, a transportation impact fee or funding drawn from existing tourism budgets. The latter rests on the proposition that the different town’s tourism each contributes some of their revenue to the transit program so no one entity would shoulder the burden.
Joseph also discussed the possibility of other funding options such as relying on advertising fees for placing ads on bus stops and busses and revenues from fares.
He then laid out two potential courses of action he believed would best achieve the program’s objectives.
The first option would be to develop a short-term task force, which would be comprised of representatives from each of the three communities impacted by the transportation system. The task force would be in meet for 90-100 days, and would be responsible for figuring out minutiae such as scheduling, determining a funding formula, preparing a pilot program, and collaborating with other existing regional transit companies and perhaps seeking route extensions. Once the task force had completed its work it would prepare a report for each of the three town councils and based upon that report a format for a quasi-governmental body that would steward the program would be generated.
The second option Joseph addressed was simply to design an economic impact study, perhaps using the format of the previous experiment with shuttling people from Montrose to Telluride and Mountain Village. Joseph concluded by stating “the time to do this is right now. There are many factors pushing us toward public transit including the economic upside and tourism, but it won’t happen unless the government steps in. We are in a Catch-22 of sorts, where there is enough demand throughout the region to really need to do something, but there is not enough demand for the private sector to step in.”
Will Montrose Be The Game Changer?
Aside from a few logistical questions, councilors and commissioners generally seemed receptive to the study, and all agreed it was something that needed to be taken into consideration in future discussions about creating an RTA or any other mechanism by which public transportation could be improved.
San Miguel County Administrator Lynn Black stressed the importance of ratcheting up the discussion about a better transportation system.
“We need we need to work hard to include people who are important to the community whether its getting them here by bus or improving the gondola,” Black said. “Everyone realizes how important a regional transportation system is, especially for getting people who don’t live here to town. Furthermore, we seem to brush aside the employees that are important to the community.”
In contrast to comments made in May, when he strongly opposed forming an RTA because “it could incorporate the gondola without a deep discussion, lead to tax increases and risk Telluride’s currently efficient transit system,” Telluride Councilor Thom Carnevale stated, “This sounds like a very reasonable solution to a problem we face, which includes moving people back and forth from Montrose.”
San Miguel County Commissioner Joan May recognized that “the Montrose government has been even more resistant to government led coordination than we have been, which has been challenging,” but optimistically continued that “I love the concept and I love Montrose, and perhaps if Montrose is on board we can really get something done.”
Nina Kothe, who serves as a county representative on the transit committee, identified some potential problems with Joseph’s proposed sources of funding for the project.
She began by observing that San Miguel County, particularly resort towns like Telluride and Mountain Village, are ahead of the game in recognizing how important transportation is, citing the gondola and the bus and shuttle systems already in place as examples.
“Now we are trying to bring in our neighbors,” she continued, “and although we already have some help from the county, like the Telluride Express from Montrose and Mountain Village operating services to Cortez and Norwood, we have to be really coordinated and working together as much as we can if we want to successfully get funding for an RTA.”
Kothe explained that in a recent meeting with the Colorado Department of Transportation, which has been providing all the grant money to fund different transportation efforts in the region, is getting nervous about doling out such a large amount of money to a region that is relatively sparse in population. “CDOT would like to see an RTA for our region because they like to deal with one centralized entity where we work together amongst ourselves and then apply for grants after defining one set of yearly goals,” Kothe said.
Joseph said that grants were intentionally eliminated from his list of possible sources of funding because he is aware that CDOT is nervous about funding the region.
Kothe also voiced concern that fares may seem an attractive way to produce revenue, but that “this has diminished returns, especially when fares are raised and people decide just to go back to their cars and at least have the scheduling flexibility that affords.”
“We can’t rely on fares as funding,” she warned, to which Joseph harkened back to his findings that businesses would be willing to subsidize travel for employees as long as certain conditions existed.