Vail, Eagle County officials talk transit, housing and child care
Voters may be asked in 2022 to create a regional transit authority
November 2022 seems a long way off, but it isn’t, really. That means there’s work to do to ask voters to create a regional transit authority.
Transportation topped the discussion list during a Tuesday sit-down session between the Vail Town Council and Eagle County Commissioners.
Eagle County Manager Jeff Shroll noted that he and Vail Town Council Member Kevin Foley were both involved in the 1995 creation of the county’s ECO Transit service.
Since then, the county’s population has grown, as have the needs to get people up and down the valley. Shroll noted that the ECO Transit model no longer meets the needs of valley residents.
These days, though, Shroll said it isn’t just government officials who see the need to improve the service. Shroll noted that in meeting with commercial interests and retail businesses, he’s increasingly being asked for service improvements.
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“Private partners now want what we’ve been talking about,” Shroll said.
But it will take the government and voters to create a better transit service. Local officials at the county and its towns are working on a “memorandum of understanding” to create a framework of what a transportation authority might look like. Voters will probably see that request — and a request for tax funding — in the 2022 election.
For the coming winter, ECO Transit Director Tanya Allen told the group to expect service similar to that provided in 2019, with the inclusion of “circulator service” between Eagle and Gypsum, as well as running two buses per day to Leadville through Minturn and Red Cliff.
Council Member Brian Stockmar asked about the prospect of more federal funding for transit, and if that might mean running a mix of vehicles, including smaller buses in areas where large buses often don’t run at or near capacity.
One of the big issues with a mix of vehicles is driver availability, but “I hope we can examine alternatives,” Stockmar added.
Allen noted that local officials expect that “substantial” federal funding will be available via an infrastructure bill now working its way through Congress.
“We’re likely to see the right solution is a mix (of vehicles),” Allen said.
As ECO researches routes with pilot programs, Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney said those programs could build support for a regional authority.
An effort to build a regional authority in the Roaring Fork Valley is underway, County Human Services Director Megan Burch said, adding that a larger district could include Eagle, Pitkin Garfield and Lake counties.
Shroll, who came to the valley in 1993 as Gypsum town manager, said he’s seeing a lot more cooperation across the valley these days. Child care is one area.
“This is a workforce issue,” Shroll said, adding that the valley needs to look at child care “in a comprehensive fashion.”
McQueeney has long been an advocate of early childhood programs. What polls poorly, she added, “is people’s willingness to pay for it.”
Burch said the valley’s largest employers are “very much engaged” in trying to find ways to provide affordable child care to families — and find people to work in the field.
“Human-resources directors are among our biggest allies,” Burch said. “They’re seeing it as a hiring barrier.”
McQueeney said the area’s employee shortage means that the county “can’t afford to have anyone staying home who wants to work … we need safe, quality places for children.”
While many in Vail worry about short-term rentals reducing units available for long-term rentals, the phenomenon isn’t limited to the eastern valley.
Shroll noted there are conversations about short-term rentals in Gypsum.
“People are cashing out, and the people replacing them aren’t in the workforce,” Shroll said. “That’s scary.”
Council Member Jenn Bruno suggested taxing short-term rentals as commercial property, a more expensive category on the property tax rolls.
Vail Town Attorney Matt Mire noted that Eagle County Assessor Mark Chapin has suggested the county can change tax classifications for units used as lodging.
“Now everyone sees it as an issue,” McQueeney said.
Vail Town Manager Scott Robson said he’d like to include the entire county in a short-term rental study the town is now doing.
Vail Mayor Dave Chapin praised the commissioners’ work in creating the recent Bold Housing Solutions program.
“It seems like (the housing situation) changes every month,” Chapin said, asking if there are ways to leverage local funds with grants and other money to do more.
Foley suggested that what’s needed immediately is government purchases of land that could be used for workforce housing.
“There are open tracts we should be buying,” Foley said, adding that the Miller Ranch neighborhood in Edwards has been a “home run for the entire community.”