Steamboat’s struggles to pay for its current transit network make expanding service to Brown Ranch even more complicated

A westward expansion of the system would bring buses to Steamboat II and Silver Spur in addition to Brown Ranch, but the city doesn't know where funding would come from

Irina Kritskaya, right, looks for something in her purse while riding the Steamboat Springs Transit bus in 2019. The free transportation service is needing to reduce service each year to stay within budget, and that lack of funding complicates the conversation of extending the system to Brown Ranch.
Derek Maiolo/Steamboat Pilot & Today archive

The cost of Steamboat Springs’ transit network is increasing faster than the funding for it grows, which has led to a decline in services in recent years just to keep the program within budget.

This can be seen through reduced late night bus service this winter, and city Public Works Director Jon Snyder said more cuts are likely in the future unless more dedicated funding for transit is secured.

The transit-funding problem compounds in the context of annexation of the Brown Ranch into the city because community feedback through the Yampa Valley Housing Authority’s planning process showed a desire for a robust transit network within the development, and many of the higher density buildings are planned for transit corridors.

But as the city cannot fund its current level of service into the future, extending that service to Brown Ranch and to neighborhoods west of Steamboat without more funding is a daunting question.

“We’re already in a situation where we’re probably going to provide less service next year to the existing city than we currently do,” Snyder told the Brown Ranch Annexation Committee on Wednesday, March 1. “There’s really no way for us to provide a robust transit system for Brown Ranch unless there’s a new revenue source in place or we provide a substantial cut to the service somewhere else in the existing city.”

As it stands, Transportation Manager Jonathan Flint said the city could adjust a current route that turns around near the KOA Holiday Campground near the western city limits to instead turn around near the first neighborhood of the Brown Ranch. This would require about $1 million to build bus turnaround infrastructure, but not substantial growth to the operating budget for transit.

But Flint also contemplated a plan that would extend bus routes westward significantly.

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One route would travel along U.S. Highway 40 and turn around near Steamboat II, and another would pass through the Brown Ranch and turn around on the northern side of the Silver Spur neighborhood. Those two routes would operate during the day in the winter, with a night and summer route being a combination of the two.

Adding this level of service is expected to cost nearly $1.5 million to operate each year, in addition to purchasing six new buses to the tune of $4.5 million. Those buses then have an annual replacement cost of about $400,000.

It’s possible Routt County could contribute some money toward a transit expansion, as westward neighborhoods are within the county, but Flint said the effort to form a Regional Transportation Authority likely wouldn’t apply here, as that is generally used for more regional transportation like a route between Steamboat and Craig.

“For transit, the question all comes down to funding,” Snyder said.

This graphic in the Brown Ranch Community Development Plan shows how the various neighborhoods will be phased. The orange dots denote transit stops planned for the development.
Yampa Valley Housing Authority/Courtesy photo

The annexation committee agreed the housing authority would build the infrastructure and the city would handle the ongoing upkeep, which is how city code currently reads.

But what still needs to be fleshed out is what kind of commitment the city would make toward expanding that transit network deeper into the Brown Ranch, a commitment that Housing Authority Executive Directory Jason Peasley said the group would like in the annexation agreement.

“We can make the best transit stops ever but if there’s no bus that shows up, what have we done?” Peasley asked. “I think this is going to be a significant ongoing conversation.”

That transit funding could come from a number of sources that City Council has explored before, such as a property tax, a new sales tax or even charging for parking in parts of Steamboat. Council President Robin Crossan said each has been discussed multiple times, with the last effort to add a property tax being killed by council in 2021.

“This reminds me of the housing conversation of 10 years ago, knowing there’s a problem and talking about it, and talking about it, and talking about it,” Peasley said. “I guess the question would be where’s the commitment to a solution?”

Crossan responded to say the solution is probably a property tax, though there may be other options.

“It is something where the money no longer comes out of the city coffers,” Crossan said. “Until we take away the need for the sales tax to do everything for us, we can’t move forward.”

Housing Authority Board President Leah Wood suggested the annexation agreement could simply say that the city was committed to bringing transit to Brown Ranch residents in an equitable way compared to the rest of the city, something Crossan and Council Member Joella West were not comfortable with.

“That is tying the hands of every council after us for a dollar amount,” Crossan said.

West said what they would put in the agreement would be more of a goal, but as that goal is a larger city issue and not isolated to the addition of Brown Ranch, she didn’t think such a statement in the annexation agreement made sense.

“The goal is much bigger than Brown Ranch, so why is there a statement in this document?” West asked. “The city has a goal to materially improve transit, and that’s where I’d end it.”

“From our perspective, we just want to make sure that the Brown Ranch is included in the city’s goal as part of the city,” Wood replied.

The next annexation meeting is scheduled for March 15, and will include the first part of the fiscal implications of annexation. Meetings are at 9 a.m. in Centennial Hall and open to the public in person and virtually.

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