The next stop: Steamboat City Council weighs future of bus service
It was a tough winter for Steamboat Springs Transit and its passengers.
When snow fell and large crowds of tourists converged at bus stops, Transit Manager Jonathan Flint said the buses were running on time only about half of the time.
And, Flint said, during the week of the Christmas holiday, 50 to 80 riders were calling the dispatch center each day to “tell us about the service we were providing.”
Driver stress was up.
Ridership dipped by 12 percent.
Steamboat Springs City Council members got an earful from constituents who saw their bus stops axed or their service cut off altogether.
And at one point in the middle of the season, Flint said he feared he would end the winter with 15 to 17 drivers when he needed more than 30.
Much of the transit woes stemmed from the city’s decision to scale back the service in anticipation of driver recruiting challenges.
Now, the city is racing to avoid a repeat next winter.
In the wake of the complaints and the big drop in ridership, the city wants to take a different route than the service cuts it made in advance of the 2014-15 season. To that end, staff is now asking the Steamboat Springs City Council to hit reverse on last year’s funding cuts and restore the old service levels.
The council appears ready to oblige and put the much maligned winter schedule in the rearview mirror.
But what the new schedule will look like remains very much in flux.
And getting back to the old service comes at a cost.
Tuesday night is shaping up to be an important date in the history of Steamboat Springs Transit.
That’s when the council will pore over several pages of transit data and start to decide what level of service it will be comfortable funding in 2015 and beyond.
To get back to the level of service offered in 2013-14, the city estimates it would need to spend at least an additional $242,400.
The price tag includes the hiring of 10 additional seasonal winter drivers to meet demand, as well as additional benefits and bonuses aimed at recruiting those drivers.
And as the rental market continues to tighten, the city also wants to reserve space in the Iron Horse Inn to house the drivers.
The added costs associated with recruiting and retaining drivers who are needed to run the former bus service continues to give some city council members reason to pause.
Council member Walter Magill has pointed out that the transit service budget has grown by about $1 million since 2004.
“It’s expensive, and it’s going to continue to be expensive,” Magill said at a recent council meeting.
He said increasing transit’s share of the city’s general fund was a “losing option,” and more local funding options would be needed to expand the service.
The council has directed City Manager Deb Hinsvark and Flint to reach out to local business partners, such as the Steamboat Ski Area, to see if they will contribute to the service.
As the city waits to hear back, a majority of the council appears ready to at least restore service to the level at which it operated two years ago.
“It seemed the 2013 route was a better route, and I would like to figure out how to get back there,” council member Scott Myller said.
But before it takes a vote on the service, the council wants to discuss goals for on-time efficiency and also look for opportunities to increase the cost efficiency of the routes.
While the council wrestles with the question of what level of bus service to fund and how to fund it, city staff is already taking some initial steps to ensure there will be enough drivers to run the service in the winter.
Those steps include tasking a transit supervisor to focus on recruiting efforts and developing more local and national recruiting partnerships with other entities, such as national parks.
There are also other big questions about the future of transit that will need to be answered soon.
In some ways, the upcoming council meeting on the future of the bus service is a continuation of meetings that ended here in 2008, when the economy took a dive.
Before the recession hit, the city was looking at providing additional regional bus service to South Routt and North Routt and talking about consolidating local hotel van service because of congestion and the challenges of hiring shuttle drivers.
Flint pointed out that, prior to the economic recession, the council and city officials were looking at expanding the transit service to solve issues such as road congestion and parking problems.
At one point, the city even ran a downtown shuttle.
Community members who attended a 2008 open house on the future of local transportation also expressed strong support for increasing the local bus service’s budget and frequency.
Council member Tony Connell served on a transportation solutions committee at the time was tasked with making recommendations for the future of transit.
Connell recalled much of the committee’s discussions were driven by the proposed Steamboat 700 development that would have added about 2,000 new home sites on the west end of the city.
But then the recession hit, voters rejected the development and discussions about the future of transit in Citizens Hall were put on hold.
“When the economy and Steamboat 700 went away, so did the need for a lot of those talks,” Connell said Wednesday.
In recent years, even as sales tax revenue has rebounded, the transit service’s budget has landed on the chopping block year after year to help balance the city’s budget and make room for things such as employee pay raises.
In 2012, the costly Yellow Line was almost nixed, along with some night service in the summer.
Last year, the city cut $140,000 from the budget and pared down the service.
Now, with poor reviews of the reduced service and continued sales tax growth, the council has some decisions to make.
What should the bus service and its funding look like in the future?
Should anyone else be pitching in more to fund it?
Many riders are anxiously waiting to find out what the council will do.
“The bus needs to be convenient and predictable,” local bus rider Brian Berry recently told the council. “It always had been. This year, not so much. It’s a great amenity. It’s a great thing to have in town.”
Alternative funding options
As it weighs the future of transit here, the council has heard about a range of alternative funding options. Steamboat Springs Transit is unique among most mountain resort communities in Colorado in that its budget relies heavily on the city’s general fund to operate each year. Several communities have dedicated sales taxes for transit, while others derive revenue from the sales of lift tickets. Here’s a look at some of the funding options that have been discussed and what they might look like:
Charging a fare
Steamboat was one of the last mountain resort communities in Colorado to stop charging a fare for local service.
Transit Manager Jonathan Flint said the change to the free-to-rider system was made gradually in the mid-1990s.
Could it be brought back?
The city would first have to determine a target for cost recovery.
Transit’s current budget is about $3 million, and it carries about 1 million passengers annually, so complete fare recovery would cost around $3 per passenger today.
Flint told the council that fare boxes on buses range in cost from $1,000 each to $35,000 each.
Some transit agencies have adopted new technology that allows riders to pay with a credit card or a smartphone.
There would be some drawbacks to charging a fare.
Flint said when the city went to a free-to-rider system, it gained 16 to 20 percent of scheduled operation time because passengers could load and unload in the front and back of the bus.
Ridership would also be expected to decrease in a paid system.
Some council members see student fees at Colorado Mountain College as a way for the school to help support the Yellow Line that serves the Alpine campus.
“Some kind of student fee cost has to be asked for to provide this,” council member Walter Magill said.
He said by running the Yellow Line at a cost of more than $8 per passenger, the city was “basically running a taxi service.”
The college has provided a financial contribution to the Yellow Line operation in previous years, but did not this year, citing budgetary constraints.
Dedicated sales tax
This has been tried in Steamboat before.
In 2001, voters handily rejected a sales tax increase that would have provided hundreds of thousands of additional dollars to the local transit system each year.
However, the tax proposal tied additional transit funding to funding for ski season jet flights.
To fund the flights and bus service, an additional 3 percent sales tax would have been imposed on lift tickets, including season passes.
The proposal also would have imposed an additional 2 percent on lodging, sporting goods equipment rentals and outdoor recreational activities, and 1 percent on restaurant sales.
Voters approved an additional sales tax for the flights in 2010, but transit was left off the later ballot initiative.
The city could ask voters to approve up to an additional 1 percent sales tax to support transit.
Finance Director Kim Weber said an additional sales tax of a little more than half a cent would cover the bus service’s current budget.
If a 1 percent transit sales tax had been in place in 2014, it would have netted $5.15 million for the bus service.
The council also has the option to pursue an up to 2 percent excise tax on the sales
of food and beverage or alcohol and cannabis.
This would also require voter approval.
Regional Transportation Authority
Also known as an RTA, an authority is created when two governmental entities form a third governmental entity that administers a transportation system.
The RTA can impose an annual motor vehicle registration fee of not more than $10 and can levy a sales or use tax of up to 1 percent.
In 2008, it was estimated that an RTA in Routt and Moffat counties could generate $7.3 million by collecting an additional 1 percent sales tax in the counties and in Craig, Dinosaur, Hayden, Oak Creek, Phippsburg, Steamboat and Yampa.
The figure also included revenue from a 1 percent visitor benefit tax in Steamboat.
RTAs have been used successfully in other regions in the state.
The Roaring Fork Transit Authority, which services Aspen, Snowmass, Basalt, Glenwood Springs and Rifle, had $17.3 million in dedicated sales tax revenues in 2014 and total revenues of $26.5 million.
An additional tax on ski area lift tickets for transportation would have to be approved by voters.
The town of Breckenridge in 2012 considered a lift-ticket tax to benefit local transportation, but it abandoned the idea because negotiations with the Breckenridge Ski Resort about a joint transit system were moving forward.
Magill recently said if the city considers a lift ticket tax, it must factor in the sales tax revenue currently generated for the city by the Steamboat Ski Area at its mountain restaurants that are not within the city limits.
Magill suggested that revenue equals what a small lift-ticket tax would generate.
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