Local officials hone in on regional transportation authority

City Council members heard about progress regarding an effort to create a regional transportation authority during a work session Tuesday night.

Commissioned to study the prospect of creating the regional transportation authority, the California-based transportation firm Fehr & Peers began working with local officials on the topic at the start of the year.

Mikhail Kaminer, a transportation planner for Fehr & Peers, presented to City Council members Tuesday, highlighting the transportation needs for communities in Routt County and explaining a projected priority project list for the yet-to-be-created transportation authority.

“There truly are so many stakeholders here and there are many different transportation challenges and needs across the entire region,” Kaminer said.

“The residents of Craig have more unmet transportation needs, based on their demographics,” the consultant added. “South Routt also has very unique transportation challenges, and then there is a jobs and population mismatch as to where the jobs physically are and where the population physically lives.”

Kaminer explained how regional transit demand in Routt County is growing and said supporting service along the high frequency route between Craig and Steamboat Springs would be a priority for the authority, if it is created, but initial projects would range to serve local community needs.

Improving transportation services through the creation of the regional agency would address traffic-related concerns on U.S. Highway 40, for example, and other local roadways and could streamline transportation services to and from Yampa Valley Regional Airport in Hayden.

The authority, which would require at least two supporting government entities, would serve as a standalone public entity and could serve as an engine to transit modes including buses, trains, bike-lanes and walking paths, and airport ground transportation.

Under Colorado law, a regional transportation authority can be formed with voter approval to provide transportation transit services within a defined geographic boundary.

Participating government entities must gain voter approval to use an array of funding mechanisms to support the transit authority’s operations. Those may include sales or use taxes, motor vehicle registration fees, visitor benefit taxes, property taxes and federal and state grants.

So far, initial participation in creating the authority has involved the city of Steamboat Springs, Craig and the Routt County government. But services provided by the authority could extend to other localities including Hayden, Oak Creek and Yampa.

The transportation consultant highlighted continuing public outreach efforts and said next steps for the process could see a ballot question asking voters to approve funding for the creation of a regional transit authority in November 2024.

Steamboat City Manager Gary Suiter, a local government veteran on the Western Slope whose prior experience includes serving as town manager in Snowmass Village, pointed to creation of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, or RFTA, as a model for how to form and expand a regional transportation authority.

Created in 2000 with approval from voters in seven jurisdictions within the Roaring Fork Valley, RFTA currently serves communities across Pitkin County and in portions of Eagle County and is the largest rural transit system in the U.S., according to the authority’s website.

Suiter said initial partners are important for creating a regional transportation authority and explained that the seeds of RFTA’s growth began “with Aspen, Snowmass, Pitkin County and we brought Glenwood Springs to the table, so the original formation of the RFTA there was among those major players who really had some sort of tax to be able to fund (it).”

“Eventually the smaller communities saw the benefits and they put a ballot question out for it and then you negotiate the terms for payment and move forward. It is an evolving process, so I would say we are doing the right thing here and taking the right approach,” he said.

“That is how the Roaring Fork Valley Transportation Authority started and it evolved,” added Suiter. “We are doing it right here.”

Another local stakeholder supporting the regional transportation authority’s creation is the Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. A spokesperson for the resort company, owned by Alterra Mountain Co., said Thursday that it supports creation of a regional transportation authority for Routt County and has already committed financial support to studies analyzing its potential.

The resort has contributed to the feasibility study behind the plans, according to the spokesperson, and is also helping to pay for a passenger-rail feasibility study.

Local lawmakers last month asked the Colorado Department of Transportation to “expedite” creation of a Service Development Plan needed to initiate a process that would see local rail tracks, owned by Union Pacific and used primarily to serve the local coal industry, converted to passenger rail links connecting Steamboat Springs with surrounding communities and the Yampa Valley Regional Airport.

Steamboat Resort is keen to see the regional transportation authority process move forward, with the passenger rail connections as a priority, adding that the company is supportive of a form of lift tax that could be levied by the city — but only if it is to directly fund the transit agency, according to the spokesperson.

“We recognize there will be financial commitments necessary for a successful (regional transportation authority) and passenger rail and we will support (that) in a collaborative effort,” the ski corp. spokesperson said Thursday.

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