Our View: City needs to find more viable way to fund transit system
Last week, Steamboat Springs City Council was notified by Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. that the ski area was no longer willing to fulfill its pledge to help fund the city’s Blue Line due to the financial impacts of operating during a pandemic. Ski Corp. had agreed to pay $242,000 to keep the line operational during the 2021 winter season.
A few council members said they were shocked by the decision, but should they really be so surprised?
Steamboat Resort, which is owned by Alterra Mountain Co., has been hit hard by COVID-19. Yes, it’s operating, but at limited capacity, and as one of Steamboat’s biggest businesses, the financial fallout from the pandemic is also likely greater for the ski area.
Because Alterra is a privately-held company, its financials are not a matter of public record, but we take Ski Corp. at its word when it says revenue is down 30% from last year and that it can’t afford to help fund the city’s free bus service. Businesses across Routt County are watching expenses closely during this unprecedented time and holding a hard line on discretionary spending, which a quarter-million dollar donation to support the Blue Line would be classified as.
Ski Corp.’s decision was neither welcome nor encouraging; however, with discretionary spending surely a focus for the company’s leadership, we do not know if delivering on its commitment to fund the Blue Line would require something like an equal offset in payroll, thereby affecting employment for many individuals.
During a heated discussion at Tuesday’s work session, council was told the city had recently secured $150,000 in CARES Act funding that could be used to offset the $242,000 needed to keep the Blue Line running through winter. Ski Corp. agreed to fund the remaining $92,000, but Ski Corp. President and COO Rob Perlman urged the city to explore long-term transportation strategies and funding mechanisms, adding the resort would be open to implementing a lift tax if it were used to fund “transformative” solutions rather than existing bus lines.
So now, City Council must go back to the drawing board and look at its options. We believe the city should broaden its discussion to study how to more viably fund the city’s free bus service instead of trying to save particular lines using a piecemeal approach and financial partnerships with private entities.
At issue: Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. backed out of helping to fund the city’s Blue Line, citing the financial impacts of COVID-19.
Our View: This development should be a wake-up call for the city to tackle the difficult challenge of long-term transit funding.
• Logan Molen, publisher
• Lisa Schlichtman, editor
• Kevin Fisher, community representative
• George Danellis, community representative
Contact the Editorial Board at 970-871-4221 or lschlichtman@SteamboatPilot.com.
The timing for that larger discussion is good as the council took a deep dive into exploring property tax options during Tuesday’s work session, which means varied options for funding city operations are still on the table. And they also began a discussion about a possible lift tax.
It also is a good time to determine how much the community values good transit service and a system that is free to riders. We think all options should be placed on the table, including a discussion on whether or not free bus service is worth subsidizing or if its time to charge riders a nominal fee to help support the transit system.
According to data from the Colorado Association of Transit Industries, Steamboat is in the minority among municipalities in funding its transit system through the general fund. Other municipalities use a mix of funding sources. As stated in a column from council member Sonja Macys that was published in Steamboat Pilot & Today, “A more common approach (to funding transit) is to use some combination of dedicated tax, often a lift ticket tax, contributions from the local ski area, revenues recovered from riders and a mix of federal and state grants.”
We think the city should seriously take a look at a lift tax. Nothing should be off the table, and a lift tax could provide dedicated funding for the long term.
We also think the city should consider the possibility of implementing a reasonable bus fare system. With mobile payment becoming increasingly popular, this could be a cost-effective option going forward. A single-ride fee could be charged or riders could be given the option of purchasing a discounted seasonal or annual pass to keep prices lower for the riders who depend on the system the most.
Ultimately, the most important question the council needs to ask itself is where does public transit fit in the priority list when it comes to city spending. Now is the perfect time to figure that out.
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