Our view: Well-funded transit system a must
City Council coming to grips with the need to charge bus fares
Vacationers expect to pay for dependable mass transit
In the wake of the disappointing news this week about poor on-time performance by the free-to-rider Steamboat Springs Transit bus service last winter, it was reassuring to learn the City Council is taking a proactive approach as it looks ahead to restoring the credibility of the system and planning for the future fiscal health of mass transit here.
That’s in contrast to late last fall, when the city was in reactive mode as it confronted a shortage of bus drivers and needed to make some budget reductions. The bus service cuts made in response only exacerbated the situation. Today, the Steamboat Pilot & Today reports the buses were on schedule only about half the time last winter, and the dispatch center was fielding as many as 80 calls per day during one peak week last season from riders expressing their feelings about the service.
That reality painfully points out that the public has high expectations of service, even when they are boarding a bus without having to pay a fare. It was part of our motivation when we editorialized on Dec. 20, 2014, to the effect that there is no such thing as a free bus.
Before we go further, we want to say we are directly aware that SST has strong leadership and many devoted and highly professional employees, from mechanics to office staff to drivers. We are solidly in their corner.
The cost estimate of $242,000 for returning SST to the level of service offered in previous winters tells us that the time for instituting modest rider fees for the city bus service has arrived. Historically, the free bus service was conceived as a way to reward/compensate vacationers for the high level of sales taxes they contribute during their visits to Steamboat. However, there are actually several mass transit systems operating in our city and that perception of the need to offset sales taxes for visitors may be outdated.
In addition to SST and taxi service, our premium property management companies build the cost of door-to-door shuttle service in luxury vans into the rates they charge for vacation condominiums. That isn’t to say there are guest lodging properties that don’t rely on SST, and that’s fine with us. But people destined for vacations all over the world are happy to pay reasonable fares for mass transit, as long as it’s convenient and dependable.
If the city is struggling to support transit out of its general fund, collecting fares from users is the logical solution. And City Council seems to be at least considering taking that step.
Some of our readers have pointed out that if the city instituted a fare system, it would only further erode on-time bus service. We certainly don’t want that to happen, and we would point out that city bus systems all over America with far more elaborately timed route systems make it work.
The modern way to pay your bus fare is to wave a debit card in front of a scanner by the front entrance. You don’t have to fumble for it in your billfold – just wear it clipped to a zipper pull on your coat pocket. And transit riders are generally happy to pay a dollar to ride 15 blocks when they compare that cost to the overhead of owning an automobile. But it doesn’t have to cost that much in Steamboat.
We reported in our December 2014 editorial that in the Western Slope city of Glenwood Springs, a town with some similarities to Steamboat minus the destination ski area, Ride Glenwood Springs charges riders a bus fare of $1 per day with substantial discounts for multi-day prices.
We are under no illusion that rider fares will pay for SST, but $1 per day per passenger would certainly make a substantial difference. That said, we would hope that in Steamboat, youth groups traveling to special events and field trips would continue to be extended the ability to ride SST at no charge.
We would urge City Council to direct its staff to consult with staff in Glenwood Springs. As well, we would urge the city to research the possibility of arranging for some of the largest employers in the city to buy down the cost of monthly SST passes for their workers to help launch a new future for Steamboat Springs Transit.
On Tuesday night, the City Council will be discussing bus service, and community members are encouraged to attend and make their views known. Now’s the opportunity to chime in how you think Steamboat’s transit system should operate into the future.
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