Steamboat Springs considers expanded bus service as well as a few ideas that could cover the cost

Hank Lacey
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
A group of people prepares to board a Steamboat Springs Transit bus. City officials are looking at the potential for expanding Steamboat's late night public transportation service.
Derek Maiolo/Steamboat Pilot & Today archive

Steamboat Springs City Council moved last week to address concerns about inaccessible bus service in the downtown business district late at night after being briefed on increased use of the city’s transit system. 

Members authorized an immediate expenditure from the city’s fiscal reserve to make transportation in the city’s main restaurant and bar area available until the wee hours. Transportation Manager Jonathan Flint told City Council that the return of late night service there would cost about $450,000 per year.

Council members postponed decisions on options to expand service in other parts of the city or return accessibility of other routes to pre-pandemic levels after city Flint told them that bus usage is back to those levels.

“Our average bus is carrying 42 passengers per hour,” Flint said. “The national average is 28 passengers per hour.” 

Flint explained that last week Steamboat Springs passed 700,000 annual users of its transit system.

“That is just a hair over 200,000 more than we carried to date last year,” he said.

The effort to restore downtown bus service until 2 a.m. followed testimony about business owners asking employees to drive customers home. Private transportation options for visitors and Steamboat Springs residents who head downtown for dinner and a late-night drink are few and far between.

“This is something where we’re getting newer clientele to Steamboat Springs from bigger cities and they assume they can get taxis and Ubers,” said Kim Haggarty, owner of downtown bar Schmiggity’s. “They don’t even think about it.”

Haggarty said that she’s surprised that the problem has not yet been solved.

“It’s a conversation I never thought I’d have to have in Steamboat, to make sure that our guests and our employees get home.”

Council member Dakotah McGinlay echoed the urgency of the issue.

“It’s important to the community to have a safe ride home after last call, especially for employees,” she said in a text message.

Flint agreed that late night bus service is a significant problem for the city’s workforce and tourists.

“There are definitely challenges with that,” Flint said. “There’s not a focused taxi group or there’s minimal taxi options available. And then Uber-Lyft, the challenge with that is that there is no guarantee that there will be any drivers out there.”

Transit options

Options for increasing Steamboat Springs’ bus service include (costs are estimated):

• Reinstate Blue/Orange Line ($950,000)
• Operate Red/Green and Blue/Orange lines until 8:30 p.m. ($106,250)
• Start Red/Green and Blue/Orange lines in the morning instead of at night ($225,000)
• Return to 20-minute intervals between buses at night ($250,000)
• Reinstate late-night bus service to and from from downtown ($250,000)

Total estimated expense is approximately $2 million. Steamboat Springs City Council approved reinstating the late-night bus service to and from from downtown for immediate effect at council’s June 6 meeting.

Financial constraints

City Council President Robin Crossan said city leadership understands the imperative of addressing the late night service demand. However, she emphasized a scarcity of resources. 

“It’s a really tough question because we’d like to be able to service our constituents, be they people who live in this community or tourists,” Crossan said. “But we have financial constraints.”

For the upcoming winter, the city will be able to pay for the return to late night service after it was reduced during the COVID-19 pandemic because it has an excess of sales tax revenue.

“The last two years we were about $12 million over,” City Council member Michael Buccino said. “When you have excess sales tax, it just takes pressure away.”

Steamboat Springs last operated a post-midnight bus from the downtown area during the winter of 2019-20. 

Accommodation of downtown visitors and residents late at night and overall increased bus use are not the only increased demands on the city’s transportation apparatus. Flint told city council at the June 6 meeting that his department also faces increased costs for labor, parts and fuel.

“We’ve seen a very significant increase in those areas,” Flint said. “Labor has been a pretty substantial, but stable, increase. Parts and fuel have been, so far, a substantial increase. Those markets remain very volatile.”

Ideas to pay for it

The question is how to pay for those increased expenses, including added hours on all routes and the possible reinstatement of the city’s Blue Line, in the future. Sales tax revenues may decline, especially in the event of an economic downturn. The city has no dedicated funding mechanism for downtown service or any other aspect of its bus system currently in place, and Flint explained that there are no obvious untapped sources of funds to which the city can turn. 

Federal money is already used to pay for capital expenditures and bus service between Hayden and Steamboat Springs, and dollars allocated by the state’s FASTER program are used to pay for buses. Earmarks secured by Colorado’s two U.S. senators and the Western Slope’s member of the House of Representatives can finance capital expenditures, but are not generally available for operational costs. 

“As far as local service, we’re kind of at the limit of what we can expect from state or federal funding,” said Flint.

The regional transportation authority proposal currently under study would mean the city would save on capital expenditures related to the Steamboat Springs-Craig bus route if voters approve it but, said Flint, any regional transportation plan “wouldn’t necessarily open up a lot of additional funding for us.” 

“The mechanics who are now spending time fixing the regional bus, that time could now be spent fixing the local bus, so now maybe we wouldn’t have to increase the number of mechanics we have,” Flint continued. “That kind of thing.” 

Winter Park voters addressed transit funding needs by approving an increased sales tax for that purpose and for trails in 2015. But Buccino said that he doesn’t know of any proposal to ask for an increased tax in Steamboat Springs, including on downtown business owners, to pay for long-term expanded service.

“That has not been presented by anybody, including Main Street Steamboat,” Buccino explained, adding that the City Council is unlikely in any event to welcome the idea. 

Even if a tax proposal were limited to the city’s main commercial district, Buccino said it would be unlikely to get City Council approval.

“We’re not going to do a special district just for downtown,” Buccino said.

Haggarty isn’t sure that the business community would support increased property or sales taxes, anyway.

“We get hit up pretty hard with our taxes,” Haggarty said, adding that some who run restaurants and bars in the Steamboat Springs business community might be open to a private arrangement to improve transportation in the downtown area. 

“I can see coming to an agreement with the lodging community and we all buy in to it,” Haggarty continued. “A lot of this is really beneficial to our lodging community. Why don’t they run a late night shuttle for their late night groups of people?”

Another option, one that has been used by several other Colorado resort communities, is to impose a lift ticket tax. That financing approach has raised millions for transit in Steamboat Springs’ sister ski towns. For example, lift ticket taxes in Breckenridge and Vail raised $4.2 million for the former and $5.5 million in the latter during 2021.

Buccino, a member of the regional Innovative Transportation Task Force, said a lift ticket tax has been discussed with the owner of Steamboat Resort. He thinks the corporate owner is on board with the idea only if generated revenues are used to support regional transportation.

He added that he agrees with that approach.

“I would not support a lift tax for the city general fund but I would support it for the RTA itself.”

What about charging fares?

Whether Steamboat Springs should return to charging fares for riding the bus, either from downtown to the area around the ski resort or elsewhere in the city, is another possibility. But Flint said that doing so may not be profitable for the city.

Aside from the question of the revenue fares generate, the city must consider the cost of fitting buses with fare boxes. Steamboat Springs can purchase and install them, leaving it to an outside entity to provide necessary technology to accommodate electronic payment systems. That entity would take a percentage of collected fares. 

“The second option is to contract with a third party to provide the whole thing,” Flint said. “They take a larger percentage of the fares received.” 

Either way, the city would have to bring in more fare revenue than the cost of collecting it.

Flint explained that the uncertainty of being able to do that is one reason it shifted to a fareless system, which is the approach also used by Aspen, Breckenridge, and Vail.

“Most of the competing resort systems in the west have a free system for the resort,” Flint said. “That was another thing when we moved from a fare system to a fare-free — to be competitive with other resorts.”

Yonah Freemark, a senior research associate at The Urban Institute, said that fare-free systems are particularly important to assure equity in municipal transit system access, a priority that Flint mentioned at the City Council meeting. Besides, Freemark added, in communities like Steamboat Springs that draw numerous visitors, a transit fare should not be necessary.

“If the people who come and visit have disposable income, then, frankly, you can raise money from the tourists and be able to support local services and help the people who live there on a day to day basis,” Freemark said.

Behind the wheel

However Steamboat Springs addresses the need to pay for late-night downtown service and other local transit needs, the city must ensure it has enough drivers. Flint told council last week that the city was 10 drivers short at the end of the winter season. He explained that driving a bus during the winter in Steamboat Springs can be particularly stressful, which pushes turnover higher.

Drivers must cope with the ordinary aspects of operating a bus, including accommodating the flow of passengers on and off the bus, as well as the need to move the vehicle in and out of traffic as it makes stops for pick-up and drop-off. But Steamboat Springs’ local buses are heavily used, which adds to the burden on the drivers.

For example, a packed bus means the driver has a harder time keeping track of behaviors or potential emergencies among the passengers. And customers cannot hear announcements as easily and are less likely to see upcoming stops.

“One of the things with a full bus is that it can be challenging for our customers,” Flint said. “That can lead to tensions rising as well.”

Promoting visibility

Flint explained that, in addition to those challenges, drivers need safe and comfortable uniforms. At present, Steamboat Springs’ drivers do not have them.

At night, Flint explained, operators exiting the bus to assist passengers are vulnerable to being hit by other vehicles, especially when snow is falling.

“I want to make sure that we can get reflective piping on the uniforms so that, if a driver is outside the bus, that they are highly visible to other motorists,” Flint said. “That’s one of the things that is very important to me and to the overall organization — to make sure that drives are visible.”

As for comfort, it is temperature changes on board the bus as the door frequently opens and closes that is the problem.

“They’re going to be in the seat for anywhere from 6-10 hours per day,” Flint said. “With the doors open and closing all the time, it’s important that it be warm enough.” 

Flint said that it is not feasible to run a vehicle heater a high level because doing so would overheat the bus passenger compartment.

Council asked City Manager Gary Suiter at the June 6 meeting to find operator uniforms that meet the transportation department’s needs.

Housing issues

Housing is another challenge to meeting the seasonal operator needs of the city and Flint said that, while his department is already ramping up recruiting for next winter, the Yampa Valley’s shortage of housing does make it harder.

“We typically have to find a housing option (for bus operators),” Flint said. “As you know, in the valley it’s challenging to find housing.”

Crossan said that the city has begun efforts to build housing for seasonal employees, including bus operators, near the transit station, but that availability of contractors to commence construction has slowed progress.

“Construction is through the roof here,” Crossan said. “Everyone is so busy. We’ve got to find a builder who’s willing to do it. We’re having trouble doing it.”

Crossan emphasized that the City Council is attentive to the recruiting imperative for the city’s transportation department.

“We’re willing to pay, but we can’t find the people to fill the jobs.”

At the June 6 meeting, council members directed Suiter to hire a recruiter that can dedicate full-time effort to finding additional bus operators.

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