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ISSUE #96: ElephANTs In The Room

"There is nothing in machinery, there is nothing in embankments and railways and iron bridges and engineering devices to oblige them to be ugly.  Ugliness is the measure of imperfection."  -- H.G. Wells


Yep, you've seen them -- the ugly new kiosks all over town, housing institutional-looking 3-speed bikes.   BS 

The much maligned and controversial We-Cycle bike sharing program has arrived!  Here's the skinny.  For a start-up cost of $650K, we now have 100 bikes available at 13 kiosks throughout town.  No, you can't just walk up and ride off with a 50-pound albatross -- you will pay $2 for a 30-45 minute ride.  There are passes available as well:  $7 for a 24-hour pass, $15 for 3 days, and $25 for 7-days.  But not so fast, you don't get to keep the bike for 24 hours, 3 days or 7days.  No, sir-ee.  If you purchase one of these passes, you get unlimited 30-minute trips within your selected timeframe.  Check-in, check-out.  And don't be late.  If you are, you will incur fees on an escalating basis: a $5 penalty for each 15-minute interval over 45 minutes.  And DO NOT lose that bike.  Your credit card will be charged $1200 if you do!  We-Cycle is NOT a bike rental program.  Go to the bike shop for that.  Instead, it's an in-town, point-to-point "last mile" solution for transit. In other words, it's access to an in-town bike for quick in-town needs.  Or, put differently, in a town where most everyone who would ever ride a bike to do in-town errands owns a bike, it's another exclusively political "environmental" initiative with a pathetic business case, no specific or measurable goals, and no articulated accountability for success.  Oh, and lest I forget, a season We-Cycle pass is $55.  Good grief.

The $650K funding for this program comes from a variety of public and private sources.  Aspen/Snowmass Sotheby's is the program's title sponsor, as evidenced by the real estate firm's deep blue logo on the skirtguard of each bike.  Other sponsors include The Aspen Institute, Aspen Meadows Resort, Aspen Skiing Company, Aspen Valley Hospital, City of Aspen, Genshaft Cramer LLC, The MyersRoberts Collective, The Nick DeWolf Foundation, Pitkin County and Roaring Fork Transit Authority (RFTA).

Specifically in the public sector, here's how the dollars and cents of the deal work.  Pitkin County kicked $200K in to start up the program.  These funds came from a "Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ)" grant, which funds projects aimed at improving air quality and reducing traffic congestion. The county receives this allocation from the feds every 2 years; 20% of which must be matched by the county to access the funds.  Luckily the county has a County Air Quality Impact Fund that they could raid for about $25k of these matching dollars.  And the city kindly stepped up with the difference.  

The ~$100k monetary shortfalls that currently exist are being addressed through an "adopt-a-bike" program.  For just $1500, you too can put your mark on one of these gems.

This program has been on The Red Ant's radar screen for several years.  Back on December 8, 2011, I weighed in with this letter to the editor, entitled "That's big bank for bikes":

"When and where does it end?  Asking for $650K to launch a public bike-share program with just 100 pay-to-use bikes?  Instead of iPads for local government officials, how about calculators?  That's a start-up cost of $6500  per bike, and these particular bikes are only for short point-to-point trips.

The craziest thing is that the program will need at least 400 locals (who presumably already have their own bikes) to use the  rental bikes for $75 (sic) each year and another 150 commuters to do the same.  Really?  Do you actually think locals are going to pay to use these things?  Plus, 5000 Aspen visitors will additionally need to participate every year to generate the $261,000 estimated annual cost.  Furthermore, for $261K annually, that's $2600 per bike.  I get my bike tuned every year for $50.  There's something very wrong with this picture.

For We-Cycle program founders Mirte Mallory and Philip Jeffreys to tell our local government officials that the program is "set up for success" is simply ludicrous.  If it's such a slam-dunk for success, then why don't they get a loan and do the program themselves instead of rattling the tin cup at the local taxpayers?  Thank goodness for county commissioner Rob Ittner who wisely asked, "What is their exit strategy?"  He obviously already has a calculator. And a clue.

It's really shameful (yet not surprising) that the others on both government bodies are so clueless to think that yet another fiscally irresponsible government-subsidized program is good for Aspen.  I particularly enjoyed Rachel Richards' comment, "I think it going to be a good fit for the community." Well, it certainly fits right in with the rest of the subsidized portfolio."

Other notable letters that I'm certain you will appreciate include:
Mike Tullar
Sheldon Fingerman

So, is there an exit strategy?  Good question.  The Red Ant is chasing down information on a vaguely referenced "agreement" between the county (and presumably the city) and We-Cycle to get to the bottom of this.  Stay tuned.  But then again, it might not formally exist. The non-profit provided the county with a financial spreadsheet back in 2011, but there is no narrative analysis nor description of major assumptions or goals.  And regarding goals, best I can tell, there are none!  None for ridership, greenhouse gas emission reductions, number of trips, financial results.  Nada.  Hopefully the elusive "agreement(s)" will yield some clarity.  Otherwise, as I have long suspected, We-Cycle is simply a political giveaway program.  The only discussion of accountability again comes from county commissioner Rob Ittner, who has asked to be briefed on the program's capital expenses and membership, noting that the program obviously must be self-sustaining to survive.  The only hint I have been given is that "the agreement" essentially makes the BOCC (and to some degree, the city) "preferred creditors" of the program; the county and city own the bikes and We-Cycle will operate the system.  So, presumably, if the program fails, the city and county get to liquidate the assets and recoup some of the $200K contribution.

Some of you may think the program is off to a solid start -- you've driven past the kiosks and seen empty spaces, right?  Well, not so fast.  There are 182 spaces for the 100 bikes.  This is to ensure there's a parking place for you once you arrive across town at your destination.  In other words, it's very hard to tell how it's going.  There is allegedly a worker with a trailer who continually drives between the 12 kiosks and "balances" bikes and spaces.  But what happens when A LOT of people ride We-Cycle bikes over to the Music Tent for a popular show?  Where will all those We-Cycle bikes go?  And at a $5-per-15 minute penalty, there will be A LOT of unhappy music-loving, bike-riding campers!  Ahhh, there's that pesky law of unintended consequences, rearing its ugly head in Aspen again.  Imagine that!

At press time, the We-Cycle folks claim that the program is off to a promising start with an average of 100 trips/day.  The Red Ant asks, compared to what?

And that's not to mention the ease with which these hideously ugly kiosks made their way into the public realm, cluttering our views while eliminating parking places throughout town.  On one hand, city council acts as the arbiters of good taste and design, and on the other, permits such eye sores to infect our precious and historic small town.  What next?  (In NYC, their new and similar B.S. bike-share program has become a comedy of errors.  The latest has exercise-hungry New Yorkers sitting atop "kiosked" bikes and pedaling to tunes on their iPhones a la an outdoor-yet-private -- and free -- spinning class!  Can't make it up!)

Speaking of eyesores, the city's never-ending geothermal drilling experiment just won't go away.  Recall that this nonsense began back in 2011, when the city added a $50K grant from the governor's energy office to another $150K of our Monopoly money in order to embark on a folly with the goal of harnessing cheap, clean renewable power to create a heating district for Aspen.  This idea was based on anecdotal evidence from the 19th century when miners reported hot temperatures in the mines beneath town.  (No, I am not making this up!)  The concept is to drill down 1500 feet and test the temperature of our subterranean water at a site on the Prockter Open Space across from Heron Park (by No Problem Bridge).  geo


In order to heat/cool buildings, 100 degree water is required.  To generate electricity, the water must be 220 degrees.  In late 2011, the contractor drilled to 1000' and found nothing.  The next go-round, after several delays, is currently underway, with the goal of getting down to 1500'.  The neighbors are outraged.  In its never-ending quest for "green at any cost" alternative energy solutions, the city continually extends its own deadlines for completion, despite the start of the summer tourism season and the impact on nearby residents and rental properties.  Called "the hole to nowhere" by neighbors, the project's total budget has climbed to $273K, but the city admits that the final costs will not be known until completion.  (The overage is likely due to the contractor starting a new nearby drilling site in May.  "Same goal, different hole," wrote the Aspen Daily News.) Allegedly the experiment ends on Wednesday, July 3.  Notably, as a councilman and then-candidate, mayor Steve Skadron stated that he would NOT support allocating any more funding to this test.  Let's certainly hope not!

We suspected it all along.  The city never cared one bit about the cost of the hydro plant.  They continually call those of us who challenge their financial assumptions and models "liars" and "hysterics," but from the beginning, the ill-conceived project was never about fiscal responsibility or return on investment.  This has come to light via a recently acquired May 2, 2013, memo from city utilities project coordinator William Dolan to city council in response to Old Snowmass resident and Rocky Mountain Institute founder Amory Lovins' excoriating report on the hydro plant (recall Issue # 94).  Read the Dolan memo HERE.  

Key truths and admissions by the city:

  • Mr. Lovins' credentials as an energy expert are undeniable.
  • While there are indeed "abundant and cost-effective renewable alternatives" to CCEC available, as Mr. Lovins points out, the city's contract with MEAN (municipal energy agency of Nebraska), it's wholesale energy supplier, makes it impossible to pursue these alternatives because the contract dictates the make-up of power MEAN sells to Aspen and other customers.  (As a cooperative 3.5% owner of the energy provider, Aspen can and should play hardball and re-negotiate!!  Besides, MEAN has historically been incredibly flexible with Aspen and its renewable energy goals, notably expanding its choice of energy sources to include greatly expanded access to wind resources at Aspen's request.)
  • Lovins' energy efficiency suggestions are spot-on, however, moving the community towards its 100% renewable goal with efficiency measures alone, aggressive regulatory policies and enforcement likely will be necessary.  (How about a carrot vs. a stick?  This community, when challenged, can achieve great things. Furthermore, since when it the city afraid of new regulations? This is a REALLY lame excuse for not actively pursuing energy efficiency as a means of reaching its renewable energy goal, and hardly an excuse for building the CCEC.)
Despite Mr. Lovins' economic feasibility arguments ("CCEC has higher costs and risks than available ample, timely and suitable alternatives, even neglecting its sunk costs and counting only it's to-go costs"), we must remember that the city's primary motivation in developing the CCEC has never been economic in nature.  As a community, we are undertaking this project to reduce our collective carbon footprint and increase our energy security in addition to striving to provide long-term rate stability to our customers.  (BINGO. Here it is in black and white. The hydro plant from the beginning was never a sound financial project, and the city knew it and didn't care.  It was always a "green at any cost" edifice to Mick Ireland and the canaries in city hall, funded with taxpayers' money.)

To further illustrate the pervasive "green at any cost" mentality in our midst, The Red Ant heard from a reader that SkiCo greenie and ardent hydro plant advocate Auden Schendler was overheard at a recent dinner party discussing the merits of his environmental work.  He was quick to tell the group that "given the seriousness of climate change, money should NEVER be an issue when taking steps to address it."  Good grief.

As I've written time and time before, the hydro plant is not dead.  Far from it. The new council can easily start it right back up with a majority vote, despite the advisory vote in favor of shutting it down last fall.

And mark my words, lazy and incompetent city manager Steve Barwick and his hydro helpers will be in front of council as soon as this summer to request additional funding for the completion of a section of "plumbing" over by the hydro plant called "the tailrace."  Remember when these guys punched a hole in Thomas Reservoir to build "an emergency drainline" to the river?  Well, this has been proven to have been a fraudulent project -- the reservoir was deemed "safe" by the state, but the city needed an existing "conduit" in that location so that it could apply for a "conduit exemption" from the feds -- a shortcut for getting the approvals for the hydro plant project.  By building the drainline, even under a false premise, there would be a conduit.  So they did.  The Red Ant and other concerned citizens exposed the "emergency" drainline caper as utter nonsense, but now it exists, and it doesn't empty out anywhere.  The soon-to-be-requested "tailrace" will connect this "drainline" to the river.  Ok, fine and good, just a big waste of money, right?  No, it's even worse.  Barwick is certain to deny the "tailrace" has anything to do with the hydro plant, but he will be lying.  Once the "tailrace" infrastructure is completed, the only missing link to having a fully functional hydro plant is the powerhouse, ironically the least expensive piece of the entire project!  The city would incur the wrath of the feds if they built the powerhouse without a FERC license, so that will be the last piece that gets built.  But once the city has its FERC license or reverts back to its original ploy of calling it a "museum," the powerhouse could easily be constructed very quickly, the custom turbine plopped into place and they are ready to go.  The sneaky saga continues.....

Come September, RFTA will be nearing completion of the region's $46 million bus rapid transit (BRT) overhaul.  While the project is on-time and within budget, one key component stands to delay the completion and put the balance sheet in the red.  The traffic-control-priority system, which will provide buses with accelerated access through certain intersections throughout the Hwy 82 corridor, continues to experience delays and cost increases.  The concept is for buses to trip a traffic signal to gain quicker passage, but the ongoing delays in installation may prevent testing and driver training prior to the September kick-off.

As for RFTA, the organization expects $47.5 million in revenue in 2013 and has budgeted for $48.7 million in expenses.  What kind of budget is THAT?  It's a typical Aspen budget!  The $1.2 million shortfall will be covered by funds in two "pools" of money at RFTA.  One is the 0.4% sales tax increase for BRT that voters approved in 2008, and the other is an unidentified bucket of mad money on hand at the agency.  Financially speaking, RFTA anticipates operational costs to increase $2 million per year once BRT is fully operational in 2014.  The thought is that increased ridership will offset some of these costs.  However, in 2012, RFTA ridership was down 4% for the year.  Thank goodness for those magic "pools" of money to make up for an even larger deficit as time marches on!

Never known for its prudent spending habits, recall (Issue #90) that expenditures for 13 new bus stations in the valley were "not expensive" because they comprised just a small fraction of the overall cost of the project.  You've seen them -- little stone "chalets" with large windows and chimneys.  The 10 standard stations cost between $230K - $275K each, the Carbondale station cost $360K, and the two mega-stations in Glenwood Springs and at the Brush Creek intercept lot cost $470K-$525 each.  No, not at all expensive.

Sometimes, The Red Ant reads something that's simply too good not to share. For your reading enjoyment, here are two fabulous pieces by Aspen Times columnist Glenn Beaton on the subject of RFTA's largesse. Enjoy!

Bus-ingham Phallus
Colossally Too Big

With 11 applicants for the council seat vacated by Steve Skadron when he was recently elected mayor, the interviewing process has begun.  The open casting call brought out ghosts of elections past, as well as local characters, including:  recently defeated mayoral candidate L.J. Erspamer, APCHA board member Marsha Goshorn, election commissioner and hydro plant opponent Ward Hauenstein, retired banker and Open Space board member Howie Mallory, Shamrock Foods salesman Jay Maytin, artist and SkiCo foe Lee Mulcahy, P&Z commissioner Bert Myrin, former councilman and 3rd place finisher in the recent council race Dwayne Romero, P&Z commissioner and AACP author Cliff Weiss, Hyatt concierge Wendel Whiting and unsuccessful 2011 council candidate and "spread the wealth" proselytizer Scott Writer.

The four sitting council members will choose this appointee, who will serve the remaining two years of Skadron's council term.  There is great debate about this appointment procedure, with many feeling that the decision should be made by the voters.  This would obviously entail a special election, which would be both costly AND time-consuming.  And that's not to mention a further extension of Aspen's never-ending election season(s).  For now, the rules are the rules, and the rules state that council appoints Skadron's replacement. It should all wrap up by July 8.

At press time, council has announced that Dwayne Romero, Howie Mallory, Wendel Whiting and Scott Writer have advanced to the final four.  Brace yourselves.

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