Local municipalities define next steps for possible regional transportation authority
A more robust transit system in Eagle County could help to alleviate workforce concerns and better meet local needs
Over the past year, local mayors, municipal managers and members of the business community have begun to flesh out the details of what a regional transportation authority could look like in Eagle County.
And over the next month or so, local municipalities as well as the county will look to vote on a Memorandum of Understanding that would define next steps toward the possible development of this intergovernmental agreement.
The potential of forming a regional transit system was first brought to local government leaders and transit authorities when they were invited to a joint meeting of the Beaver Creek and Vail Economic Advisory Councils in January 2020. At the meeting, the group discussed the need for improved and enhanced regional transit.
Eric Heil, Avon’s town manager, said at Avon’s Aug. 24 Town Council meeting that this meeting brought a lot of energy, enthusiasm and optimism to evaluating the concept of better regional transit.
The need for a “more robust transit system” has become increasingly important as “the valley grows and there’s more demand for workforce,” according to Eagle County manager Jeff Shroll.
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Shroll added that the ECO Transit system has outgrown its initial business model and that a regional authority would help people become more mobile without cars, help reduce greenhouse gases and traffic as well as solve a portion of the region’s workforce challenges.
After the meeting in January, following some delay due to COVID-19, an ad-hoc group of local town managers, transit directors and business community members began to meet regularly to discuss the opportunities and challenges associated with developing a regional public transportation system.
This group has spent some time identifying the transit needs of our current community and how a regional system could help.
Coming together to solve big issues
Traditionally, Shroll said, these things are led by the government. What he’s noticed in recent years, however, is that private entities are starting to jump in to help solve workforce issues like transportation, housing and early child care. And as there becomes a more robust and regionalized effort toward building a regional transit system — an effort that will likely include government, private and nonprofit partners — there is a greater chance of success in solving these workforce issues.
“It is important for our community to be proactive in developing solutions for the future, while servicing the needs that exist today,” said Chris Romer, the CEO and president of the Vail Valley Partnership who has represented both the valley’s schamber of commerce and the Eagle Air Alliance on the ad-hoc group. “Transit and transportation are key challenges and I am optimistic that our public and private partners will develop a solution that benefits our entire community.”
Romer added that the Eco Transit system does a good job with what it has, but that its system is no longer adequate to meet the needs of the community.
“The opportunity to establish feeder routes, improve circulation for commuters, increase service to visitors, and create administrative efficiencies are all worth vetting to determine if an RTA will help provide a solution to our current and future needs,” he said.
One of the other benefits — identified by Romer, Shroll and Heil — is that it could help establish a more permanent funding source for the Eagle County Regional Airport through the Air Alliance. Currently, Heil referred to its funding as a “pass-the-hat, bake sale approach.”
By including the airport in this regional authority, Shroll said it could attract visitors from different markets as well as increase affordability for locals wanting to fly out. Both of which, he said, would help reduce traffic on I-70.
But this ad hoc group, alongside the local mayors and managers group, got as far as it could and decided to proceed with a memorandum of understanding to keep moving the work forward.
Building a formation committee
At Avon’s Aug. 24 Town Council meeting, Eric Heil, the Avon town manager, described this memorandum as “a non-binding legal document to form a RTA formation committee” that will determine “how we’re going to tackle this in a systematic way to flesh out the rest of these details and present it to the public.”
This committee, he said, “would meet monthly from here through next November and hire some consultants to facilitate the community outreach and engagement, and really make a focused effort to bring to the Nov. 1, 2022 election a question to form a Regional Transit Authority.”
Eagle County, as well as all the municipalities in the county, will consider adopting this memorandum in the next month or so. This includes Avon, Vail, Eagle, Gypsum, Red Cliff and Minturn. Basalt is not included as it is already part of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Avon Town Council voted unanimously to approve the memorandum on Aug. 24. According to Shroll, the memorandum is “in the hopper” to get it on an upcoming agenda for the county and expects all other municipalities to follow suit.
Scott Robson, the Vail town manager, said the Vail Town Council will consider it at its next meeting on Sept. 7. “We’ve been a proponent of forming an RTA so I suspect the Town Council will support,” Robson wrote in an email.
Both Eagle and Gypsum’s Town Councils will review and vote on it at their respective town council meetings on Sept. 14. Red Cliff’s Town Council will review it on Sept. 7. Minturn’s council will review it at its Sept. 15 meeting.
Shroll said that once this committee gets off the ground, the “heavy lifting starts.”
According to Heil, to get started this fall, Vail, Eagle County and Avon will be asked to split a $30,000 investment to identify and research issues and questions surrounding what forming a regional transit authority would look like.
And not only does the memorandum contemplate the formation of a Regional Transportation formation committee, but also two other committees that will help define what the authority could look like.
The first is a technical committee comprised of representatives from municipalities, transit agencies and other entities including Beaver Creek, the Beaver Creek and Vail Economic Advisory Councils as well as the Vail Valley Partnership and Eagle Air Alliance. This is essentially the same ad-hoc group that has already been meeting on the issue. The second is a stakeholder committee, which will consist of interested nonprofit or community organizations and private businesses interested in being a part of the conversation.
According to Heil, these committees will serve as a mechanism to get information out and get input back to the formation committee. He added that the technical committee would continue to meet and collectively chase down answers to questions and put numbers to these answers.
“Forming it is one thing and getting it off the ground is another,” Shroll said, adding that he thinks these groups are looking forward to having this conversation on what will all go into this getting this authority off the ground.
Romer plans to continue as a part of the technical committee.
“We have long pushed for transportation infrastructure improvements at a federal and state level, and expanded transit access and increased air service development at a local level,” Romer said. “Vail Valley Partnership and EGE Air Alliance are engaged with this effort to listen, provide feedback and to be a champion for our business community to ensure their needs are met with any possible solution offered.”
While a lot of the questions are still yet to be defined, Heil expects research over the next year to look at whether transit moves more visitors or local employees, identifying best possible routes and times for services, as well as seeking possible enhancements like transitioning to all electric buses and increasing frequency and convenience of service.
One of the big questions, as of now, Heil said, is whether or not metro districts will be included on the regional transportation authority board. As part of the legal requirement for forming a regional transportation authority, the board would have to include the county and all its municipalities with the option of having metro districts sit on the board.
Getting all the way there
One of the main goals behind creating the formation committees and the other breakout groups is to evaluate what forming the authority would look like and put it in front of Eagle County voters in 2022.
Heil said if all goes to plan, after its research the formation committee would start to build a draft of an intergovernmental agreement for creating the regional transit authority. The Colorado Department of Transportation would have to review this before it goes on a ballot. Once on a ballot, voters in each jurisdiction in the proposed authority boundary would have the opportunity to approve the agreement.
While this would be a county-wide vote, voters of each jurisdiction would have to have a majority approve the agreement in order for that jurisdiction to be a part of the regional transportation authority.
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at email@example.com.