Since 2020, local leaders have been working to establish what a regional transportation authority could look like in Eagle County. Now, these leaders have set an ambitious timeline that could have residents voting on an intergovernmental agreement — as well as any associated tax increases or debt questions — to establish the authority as early as November 2022.
At the end of 2021, Eagle County as well as the towns of Avon, Eagle, Gypsum, Minturn, Red Cliff and Vail all signed a memorandum to collaboratively work out the details of a possible RTA and create a proposal for voters. The memorandum also created three committees — a formation committee, a technical committee and a stakeholder committee — to move the process forward.
The formation committee was created to review policy decisions and develop a consensus on the RTA intergovernmental agreement, which defines the participants, organizational structure, service goals and funding sources. Since established, the formation committee — with representatives from each on the towns that signed the memorandum — has met twice a month since the fall.
The technical committee is comprised of representatives from Eagle County’s four transit agencies — including Beaver Creek Transit, ECO Transit, Vail and Avon Transit — as well as the Vail Valley Partnership, Eagle Air Alliance as well as a few other town and business representatives. Also meeting twice a month, this committee was formed for the purpose of researching financial, legal and technical issues to support the process and any proposals.
A third committee, a stakeholder committee, is expected to form in March and facilitate community input on any proposals put forth by the other committees.
At the Feb. 22 Avon Town Council meeting, Avon Town Manager Eric Heil, who has served on both RTA committees, presented an update on the process and shared the groups’ ambitious timeline for the year.
The need for a new RTA
The current effort to create a Regional Transportation Authority in Eagle County stems back to a meeting held in January 2020 by the Beaver Creek and Vail economic advisory councils. Business leaders from Beaver Creek and Vail invited local government leaders and transit authorities to discuss the need for improved and enhanced regional transit.
“It’s a huge change, it’s a huge enhancement, it’s something just about every other community already has in place. It really advances climate action goals, I think it really advances livability goals and I think it really advances visitor experience,” Heil said, speaking on the benefits of a new transit authority.
Currently, while some areas have their own transit system — like Avon and Vail — ECO Transit is addressing some regional transit needs. However, since ECO Transit was formed in 1996, the needs of regional transit have grown significantly.
In a previous interview with the Vail Daily, Eagle County manager Jeff Shroll said that the ECO Transit system has outgrown its initial business model. A new regional authority, he added, would help meet the needs of a growing population and workforce as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions and traffic.
On Feb. 22, Heil said that the new RTA would not only build on ECO Transit but also set the stage “to really improve that transit and best position us for the next several decades.”
In creating a new regional transportation authority, the formation committee has identified a number of goals to maintain, enhance and expand the current ECO Transit service. These goals include:
- Creating a comprehensive, multi-modal, enhanced and optimized transportation system
- Enhancing transit service for residents
- Creating more effective transit for employees, which has significant benefits for employers
- Improving the visitor experience to maintain economic competitiveness
- Increasing transit ridership to reduce reliance on vehicle use
- Improving regional representation in transit with a comprehensive, long-range plan
Additionally, there is some hope that the new authority will bring about specific transit enhancements such as improvements to current schedules to expand service and frequency; free fare and frequent transit between ski resorts; the establishment of an Eagle to Gypsum route; first- and last-mile enhancements; enhanced service to Red Cliff and Minturn; and more.
Preliminary service goals for a new RTA — which are currently under review and subject to community input — include inter-jurisdiction transportation, enhanced transit service, Eagle Air Alliance funding, regional trails and regional representation of the Union Pacific Railroad Corridor.
In order to form the authority, the group will be soliciting significant community feedback — through polling, public hearings, stakeholder meetings and more — on the scope and formation of the authority. Already, the group solicited employee feedback through a transit survey in late 2021.
The survey received just over 1,300 responses with respondents from Avon (19%) Edwards (18%), Eagle (15%), Vail (15%) and Gypsum (9%). The job location of respondents included 39% in Vail, 19% in Avon, 15% in Beaver Creek and 7% in Edwards. This means that while only 52% of respondents live upvalley, 80% of them work upvalley.
In presenting the survey results on Feb. 22, Heil said that most respondents were not using transit because they either prefer to drive themselves, the current bus schedule doesn’t fit their work schedule or there was no convenient bus stop near their home or place of work. On the flip side, respondents said they would be encouraged to ride if there was more frequent service, if bus schedules fit better with work schedules and if there were closer bus stops to home.
This loop of feedback between local governments, committees and the public will continue until there some level of “community understanding and consensus on what might make sense for voter approval,” Heil said.
An aggressive timeline to November
While the need for a new RTA has been well established by local leaders, there is still a lot to do before the authority can be formed. In order to establish an RTA, two or more local governments must approve an intergovernmental agreement, refer that agreement to an election and obtain approval from participating governments.
The agreement has a number of mandatory terms it has to define including the authority’s members, the organizational structure of its governing body, service goals, cost estimates, whether voters will see combined or separate formation and tax questions, as well as contingencies for different vote outcomes.
At the same time voters are asked to approve this agreement, a tax increase or debt authorization to fund the formation can be asked as well. Voters from each member jurisdiction would have to approve the agreement for their area to be included in the regional transit authority.
According to Heil, there is already a draft agreement, which was created by the attorneys involved in the process. The technical and formation committees are in the process of reviewing and commenting on this draft before it goes before the public for comment, which would be the agreement’s next step.
Part of this agreement includes evaluating possible revenue sources. According to Heil’s report, by statute, authorized revenue sources for a RTA include voter approval to have up to 1-cent sales tax, up to 2-cents visitor benefit tax, up to a 5 mill property tax as well as up to $10 per vehicle registration fee each year, ridership fares and charges for transit service.
Currently, ECO Transit is funded by a .5% sales tax in Eagle County. This tax, according to an Avon Town Council packet, generates $11,939,000, which is distributed to transit and trails in the Roaring Fork Transit Agency area, trails in Eagle County, and the remaining $9,644,000 is distributed to ECO Transit.
The current understanding from the committees is that the new RTA would assume “all operations and assets of the ECO Transit, and Eagle County would enter into an (intergovernmental agreement) to remit the current ECO Transit revenues to the RTA,” reads the report.
Heil said that the public stakeholder process and polling will help to establish voter preferences and support in terms of revenue sources and taxes.
The current group has identified a rather aggressive timeline to hopefully put the intergovernmental agreement as well as any related tax or debt questions before voters at the Nov. 8, 2022 election.
In order to put the RTA on this November ballot, the groups must meet the following deadlines:
- Send a notice to the Department of Local Affairs about the intention to form the RTA by March 17 (or 45 days ahead of the intergovernmental agreement approval)
- Have a draft intergovernmental agreement for public review by March 31
- Each participating municipality is minimally required to host two public hearings on the agreement, which are expected to occur starting in April
- Refer the agreement to the Colorado Department of Transportation by May 27 for review and comment. CDOT has at least a 90-day comment period for such agreements.
- The group has until July 19 to notify the county clerk of intent to participate in the November election
- In August, participating municipalities will have to individually approve a final version of the RTA intergovernmental agreement and adopt a resolution to refer the agreement to an election
- August 30 is the last day to sign a separate intergovernmental agreement with the county clerk for the election
- The ballot content must be certified by Sept. 9
“This time frame is really aggressive, and I would say it’s at the speed of business, not the speed of government, let alone regional government,” Heil said. “Everyone has some good focus so it’s possible, but it would probably be faster than what has been done in the past.”
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.