Will Eagle County adopt a unified transit model?
Talks could lead to asking voters to create a regional transit authority
Residents and local officials have for decades talked about making local transit more effective. It’s early, but concrete action may be on the way.
Local officials are now talking about going to voters in 2022 with an idea for a regional transit agency. The first steps in that involve creating a memorandum of understanding between local governments and Beaver Creek. Town and county governments in August are likely to see a draft of that agreement.
In addition to the agreement, local officials are talking about a couple of pilot programs. One of those programs would take riders between Vail, Avon and Beaver Creek. At the moment, it takes rides with at least two separate transit agencies to get from Vail Village to Beaver Creek.
Vail Town Manager Scott Robson said the upper valley project could be active by this ski season.
Current talks also include a pilot program to provide local service between Eagle and Gypsum.
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“We’ve heard it clearly from everyone from the (Vail Town Council) to the (Eagle County commissioners) and the municipalities in between,” Robson said. “A higher level of frequency and service is desired.”
That includes both visitors and locals looking for a more efficient link between their homes and workplaces.
The idea, Robson said, is to work toward creating a regional transit agency. The county’s ECO Transit agency is technically a regional operation, but includes only the Eagle River Valley. Money raised in the Roaring Fork Valley from an Eagle County sales tax is provided to the Roaring Fork Transit Agency.
A possible model
The Roaring Fork agency is cited as a model for what might be possible here. That agency transcends political boundaries, and stretches from Glenwood Springs to Aspen. It includes three counties — Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin — and includes the towns of Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, Basalt, El Jebel, Snowmass Village and Aspen.
The agency is a separate political entity with a board made up of representatives from participating governments. The agency also has taxing authority, with voter approval. The agency has a sales tax — the amount varies between jurisdictions — and voters last year approved a new property tax. Glenwood Springs isn’t part of the taxing district, but makes an annual contribution.
Creating something like that in Eagle County will take a lot of work before going to voters. If the decision is made to ask voters, it will be 2022, at the earliest, before a ballot issue is presented.
“We have to move fast,” Eagle County Commissioner Matt Scherr said. “But we think the time is right — the conversation is productive.”
A regional authority recognizes that transit isn’t limited to political boundaries, Scherr said, adding that Lake County might be included in a new authority, given the demand for transit between that community and Eagle County.
Robson noted that improving service from the Eagle County Regional Airport could also be included in a potential transit agency to provide better service between the airport and the valley’s ski resorts.
While ECO is technically a regional authority, Scherr said there’s “an uncoordinated aspect to what we’re doing.”
While transit is a yearslong issue in the valley, there seems to be more urgency now.
“We’ve heard from the business community that (transit is) critical to get people to jobs,” Avon Town Manager Eric Heil said. “That’s compelling.”
The idea of unified service between Vail, Avon and Beaver Creek “should get people excited,” Heil said, adding that unified transit systems work well in other resort areas.
What kind of service?
Vail Town Council member Brian Stockmar is the town’s representative on the ECO Transit Board. Stockmar isn’t involved in the current discussions, but said he hopes the talks bear fruit.
Stockmar said he’d like to see a model using some of what’s being done in Zermatt, Switzerland, which uses vehicles of different sizes to more efficiently meet demand.
While Minturn needs transit, it doesn’t need service from a full-sized bus, Stockmar noted. Finding enough drivers for a fleet of smaller vehicles could be difficult, but Stockmar said the model should be examined.
Boosting transit also needs to consider how long a trip can take. Scherr lives in Minturn, and there’s an ECO bus stop right outside his home. There’s another bus stop right outside the Eagle County Administration Building. Scherr said it takes about an hour and 40 minutes to make that one-way trip. Jumping in the car and driving to Eagle takes about 30 minutes.
Cost is another issue. Scherr said he’d like people to think about more than just the price at the fare box. People have long called for ECO Transit to be free, something Scherr said would cost about $2.5 million per year.
“I’d rather pay $10 million (over time) to make us a more well-functioning economy,” Scherr said.
Voters are likely to ultimately decide what a regional transit agency will look like. But, Scherr said, he knows what he’d like to see.
“Shall we make transit free?” he asked. “No, let’s make transit good.”
Eagle County (ECO Transit)
Beaver Creek Transit