Vail Valley Voices: Avon’s transit choices
Vail, CO Colorado
Avon Transit is an integral part of Avon and the Vail Valley economy as a whole.
By transporting more than a thousand riders each day fare-free, it is a significant amenity to local businesses, employees, recreational visitors and the public.
However, the existing bus system does not meet current ridership demands and is a drain on limited town financial resources.
Transit experts have recommended some major changes in order meet the town’s long-term needs and enhance Avon’s connectivity and vibrancy. As part of the town of Avon’s upcoming Connect Avon Now project, the future vision for mass transit in Avon is under review.
Avon Transit’s service is concentrated in the town core between U.S. Highway 6 and Interstate 70 and between West Beaver Creek Boulevard and Chapel Place.
The majority of riders are going to work, many in Beaver Creek or via connection with ECO Transit. The hub of Avon’s transit activity is at Avon Station, next to the Westin Riverfront where the Riverfront Gondola, ECO trails, taxis and a passenger drop-off zone all converge.
Avon Transit’s biggest problem today is that it has no dedicated revenue source to pay for either capital or operating costs. The town’s general fund fully subsidizes bus service at a cost of more than $1 million per year. Expenditures from the general fund are subject to the approval and discretion of the Avon Town Council.
Avon Transit service has been adjusted up and down depending on available annual revenue. Service frequency and the bus stops served have changed from year to year for nearly a decade.
As transit use expands in the future, operational costs such as fuel, replacement buses and labor rates are expected to outpace the town’s general-fund revenues. Connect Avon Now would create a dependable source of funding for transit and provide stability in the level of service provided.
At public meetings, through telephone calls and via surveys, the community has voiced the need for additional mass-transit connectivity to reach outlying areas of Avon, such as the Village at Avon stores, the Buffalo Ridge affordable-housing complex and the north side of I-70.
Consistent, dependable service to Beaver Creek’s covered bridge stop is desired by local lodges and restaurants. And the Beaver Creek Resort Co. requests that Avon cooperatively develop a long-term financial plan for a town-mountain sustainable connection.
Avon’s town-core area is only about 25 percent built out today. This fact provides the opportunity for local
residents to shape the future if key decisions about transportation are made today.
Avon’s land-use plans concentrate development in the town-core area, creating a compact, pedestrian-scale environment. Lodging, affordable housing and commercial shops and offices will be integrated in a core area. The plans rely on transit and pedestrian connections much more than on the automobile – quite different from Avon today.
As part of the Avon Comprehensive Transportation Plan, transit experts evaluated the current and projected future bus-ridership demands in Avon.
Bus ridership on Avon Transit is projected to triple, growing from about 500,000 riders per year to about 1.5 million riders per year within the next 25 years. FHU, the consulting company that drafted this plan, recommended significant transit and trail improvements over the next 20 to 25 years, which would cost millions. Currently, the town has no funding for any of these recommended improvements.
“We believe all of these improvements would significantly improve Avon, but we need to prioritize them and determine what the public will realistically agree to fund,” said Larry Brooks, town manager.
Expansion of bus service to key destinations and the establishment of dedicated funding for transit are the top two priorities on Avon’s list. These changes are currently included in the proposed Connect Avon Now project.
One recommendation that is less certain in the near term is the extension of bus service to the Wildridge neighborhood, located north of I-70 and about 1,000 feet above the town-core valley area.
Transit experts predict that extension of transit service could capture only 1 percent to 3 percent of the total trips generated by this neighborhood if service were extended using a specialized 4-wheel-drive bus, making bus service to Wildridge an inefficient use of public resources.
Even with additional future development in Wildridge, cost and ridership estimates indicate a very high cost per rider of about $22 per one-way ride. In comparison, the average cost today on the existing in-town routes is about $3 per one-way ride.
As a result, Wildridge residents would be better served by a parking garage in the town core.
Given the short distances traveled and the guest-oriented community, Avon would prefer to keep the system fare-free if possible. Charging a fare would increase loading time at each stop and reduce ridership while only recovering 10 percent to 20 percent of transit costs.
Consequently, the town is looking at other options to fund mass transit. The consensus among Town Council members is there would be an advantage to establishing a combination of sales tax and mill-levy property tax to support transit, parking and trails.
The big benefit of sales tax is that about two-thirds of it is imported into Avon from shoppers residing outside of Eagle County. This means that locals would pay $1 for every $3 in the value of services.
A community survey done in 2008 showed that 73 percent of the Avon voters polled would support a sales tax increase to fund transit and trail improvements. However, solely relying on a sales tax is risky, as recent economic cycles have shown, and insufficient to fund the necessary capital investments.
Funding the capital investments in a parking garage, trails and transit infrastructure at least in part via a property tax would add stability and predictability to a dedicated revenue stream. It also would allow the town to use low-interest financing to pay for the capital components included in Connect Avon Now.
As it is currently proposed, the Connect Avon Now project would fund and expand transit to Buffalo Ridge, Village at Avon, Beaver Creek Village and commercial areas along Nottingham Road; increase service level in proportion to population growth and ridership; provide for ongoing operations and maintenance costs; add new and replacement buses to the fleet; and provide capital for a parking garage, bus facilities, pullouts, shelters, signage, etc.
Connect Avon Now also would allow for continued fare-free service and for the subsidy from the town’s general fund to be capped at a predictable, fixed level.
If Connect Avon Now is approved, construction of some of the projects would begin next year and create much-needed construction-related and permanent jobs for the local economy.
More information about the future vision for transportation in Avon and possible funding strategies will be discussed at the Connect Avon Now public open house scheduled for April 29. You also can visit http://www.avon.org/connectavonnow.com for more information or to comment on this project.
Jaime Walker is the public-relations officer for the town of Avon.