Bus fares back on Avon’s front burner | VailDaily.com

Bus fares back on Avon’s front burner

Matt Zalaznick

But now that the election has passed, the Town Council and the new mayor, Buz Reynolds, must figure out how to pay for the town’s cash-strapped free bus system without alienating lodge owners and other merchants who don’t want their customers charged for rides.

“In a perfect world, and considering we’re in a tourism economy, I would like to find some way to keep the skier shuttle and the various town routes free, because that helps people who live and visit here,” Avon Town Councilman Mike Brown says. “But we’re not living in a perfect world. We’re fully aware of shortfalls we’re facing.”

In a year when the town expects to be about $500,000 short on cash, the skier shuttle and town routes cost $900,000 to operate. A “use tax” on building supplies the town hoped would raise $500,000 to $600,000 a year was defeated soundly by voters on Election Day.

Vail’s free bus system, because of Election Day tax defeats, has also run into some financial potholes and may be facing cuts. Vail’s buses are funded by a Vail Mountain lift ticket tax , but Avon’s shuttles have no similar specific funding source.

The Avon Town Council gave its transportation director authority last summer to start charing $1 a ride. But just before the fares went into effect, lodge owners and merchants revolted, saying both seasonal workers and tourists depend on free bus rides.

Charging for buses also goes against the Town Council’s goal of better linking the east and west sides of Avon, which are now somewhat separated by Avon Road and the roundabouts, says Scott Fulton, vice president of marketing for Charter Sports.

“If the Town Council is really trying to bring the town together and make it pedestrian-friendly, the last thing they need to do is pull the free buses,” Fulton says. “They need to define Avon and set the town apart, but the last thing I want to hear is what sets Avon apart is a $1 bus fare.”

Bus fares will even drive some visitors away, Fulton says.

“You don’t go to Breckenridge and pay to ride a bus; you don’t go to any resort town and pay to ride a bus,” Fulton says. “If they start charging fares, people are going to drive to the (Beaver Creek) parking lots or you’re going to have people parking on Highway 6 and skiers crossing icy roads. It’s going to be a problem.”

Merchants and town officials are expecting to have continuing discussions to resolve the problem. A possible result is that lodge owners and merchants themselves will end up paying for the buses, newly elected Councilman Ron Wolfe says.

“I think the consensus of the council is if it’s at all possible, the buses should be free for the people that ride it,” Wolfe says. “We have to explore new sources of revenue for buses that basically come from people who benefit, and those are the people who employ seasonal workers and people who rent accommodations to guests in town.”

The Town Council is expected to reopen its own discussion of bus fares at its next meeting Tuesday.

“I’m still opposed to having bus fares, but I’m not sure other council members feel that way,” says Councilwoman Debbie Buckley, who was reelected to a second term this fall. “I think that discussion will probably happen next Tuesday.”

To balance spending for 2003, the Town Council had to make extensive cuts. Town employees are unlikely to get raises next year and some critical services, such as snowplowing, have been reduced.

The town also has recently lost two lucrative sources of revenue. Until the end of 2001, Avon had an “amenity fee” that helped pay for the buses. The fee was charged to Avon condominiums but was only a short-term agreement. Town Council may again look to condominiums and time-shares to make up the bus shortfall.

A contract under which Avon was paid to operate Eagle County Regional Transit buses also expired last year.

And while this fall’s heavy snow has brought hopes for a economic upturn in Avon this ski season, this year’s financial troubles can’t be ignored, Brown says.

“Hopefully, with the better snow, things will turn around, but were not banking on that,” Brown says. “Considering the 2002 budget and the effect on the economy, we have to do something.”

Merchants agree, Fulton says.

“We want to work with the council, but we are adamant against charging skiers,” Fulton says. “The tax revenue skiers bring into the valley should not be taken for granted. They spend so much money, and we’re about to nickel and dime them for another buck.”

Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at mzalaznick@vaildaily.com.

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