HomeNews RTA thinking of ways to support local travelers in the future
RTA thinking of ways to support local travelers in the future
Written by Alissa Johnson
Wednesday, 19 June 2013
Stimulating demand for the local airport
Last week’s announcement that Crested Butte Mountain Resort (CBMR) had secured direct flights from Chicago to Gunnison brings a small boost to the number of incoming airline seats next winter.
But the overall number of available winter seats will still be down nearly 12 percent from last year, leaving CBMR and the Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority (RTA) to tackle what’s beginning to feel like an age-old problem. The air program is expensive to secure, and there’s limited money to support it. For its part, the RTA appears focused on increasing its services for local travelers to boost public perception of the air program and to soften the blow if the RTA asks voters for more revenue. Among the ideas on the table are a voucher program through which the RTA would give away a select number of airline tickets; a reimbursement program to buy down the cost of an airline ticket; and possibly supporting senior transportation needs. The board also continues to discuss the possibility of a year-round, overnight flight between Denver and Gunnison. And while the RTA seems to be a long way from actually putting a referendum on the ballot, each idea was considered in the context of bolstering local, public support for the air program.
Price for year-round flight on the decline In the past, the minimum revenue guarantee (MRGs) for United Airlines to provide a year-round, overnight flight between Denver and Gunnison has been quoted at well over $1 million but that figure has been decreasing. While it’s a popular flight option for local business travelers—they can leave home early in the morning and return late that night—the MRG far surpassed the RTA budget. According to RTA airline consultant Kent Myers, however, the $1 million figure has come down to $430,000, and he believes there may be further wiggle room. United’s calculation seemed to suggest there were only 77 overnight flights already on the schedule, whereas Myers says that number is closer to 150. “But the quote is heading in the right direction,” Myers said. “I’ll be in Chicago later this week and will talk to them further because this is more of a long-term plan than a short-term plan.” And even though it is a step in the right direction, additional questions remain. Most important, the RTA doesn’t have an additional $430,000. It’s also unclear what the overnight flight would mean for the mid-day flight or vice versa. The latter continues to perform well with tourists. RTA executive director Scott Truex pointed out that when there is a mid-day flight and an overnight flight on the same day, the mid-day flight performs better. “This number is not a recommendation,” he emphasized, adding that the discussion was a good one to continue with United but it didn’t make sense to act on it at this time. County Commissioner Jonathon Houck agreed and cautioned the group. “The last thing we want to do is start paying for flights that United will put into place as demand increases for them. That’s a trend that’s hard to reverse,” he said. “Right now, they’re flying [from Denver] on their dime, and they have added more flights as the demand has been there. I want us to be cognizant that we don’t pay for something that, eventually, demand would bring to the market.”
Locals’ programs One way to increase RTA revenue—and therefore the budget available for MRGs—would be to equalize the tax across the county. Currently, most of Gunnison County pays a .06 percent sales tax and the city of Gunnison pays a .03 percent sales tax to fund the RTA.
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Past discussions have considered asking voters to equalize that sales tax at .06 percent or raise it across the board to 1 percent. But that requires public support for the air program, and to that end a marketing committee has begun discussing ways to support the local traveler. Commissioner Paula Swenson explained that the committee came up with a few ways to do that: a voucher program that would raffle off free or discounted airfare to a certain number of locals; a reimbursement program that would offset the cost of a ticket out of Gunnison; or a combination of the two. “This is to promote more people flying in and out of Gunnison and PR about what the RTA really is doing,” Swenson said. “We came to the conclusion that the ideas are not mutually exclusive,” Truex added. Details would need to be figured out for each idea, as well as ways to measure the success of the program, whether it would be a one-time deal or ongoing, and whether to run it through the airlines or local travel agents. But the board spoke out largely in favor of pursuing the ideas. “I think it makes a lot of sense,” said Crested Butte mayor Aaron Huckstep. “The purpose is to stimulate demand for our local air program by our local citizens, so I think that’s worthy endeavor if we accomplish that goal.”
Senior transportation in Gunnison On another note, Truex says he has been in discussions with various groups in the county to see if there are ways the RTA can help meet ground transportation needs for seniors. “As demographics change, it’s becoming apparent that it will be difficult in the future to meet the needs of our senior population,” he said. The group considered whether or not the RTA could help increase the availability of dial-a-ride services for seniors in Gunnison by adding it to a ballot question to increase the sales tax. According to Truex, the cost of providing that service five days a week would likely fall between $80,000 and $120,000. “It being a part of the ballot could help the entire ballot question pass,” he said. The idea sparked a lot of discussion among the RTA board, looking at whether it fit within the mission of the RTA, and whether it would be possible to provide that service across the entire valley. New board member Carolyn Riggs questioned whether it was fair to provide that service to only one segment of the population. “You’re asking for public funds to go toward a specific demographic,” she said. But overall, the board spoke in favor of continuing the discussion. “If we look at our current mission statement, this is probably way out on the fringe,” said Houck. “But if we’re going to try to increase funding, we’re going to have to lay out some guarantees—this is what the minimum ground transportation between Gunnison and Mt. Crested Butte looks like. Maybe the senior transportation is an element of it. There is this opportunity as we go down a road of looking at different options and different choices widen our scope.” For now, it’s back to the drawing board on all accounts as the discussion continues.