The bus fuss

Community wants transit to expand, city threatens each year to cut services

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At a city budget review Tuesday, Transportation Director George Krawzoff stood before the City Council and delivered a familiar message.

He told the council that if his budget is not expanded, his department would have to cut a portion of its bus service -- a portion that mostly would affect local riders during the off seasons. That would go against the community's desire for more bus service during peak winter hours and expansion of routes, he said.

An increase in sales-tax revenue and a 3 percent increase in spending that each department was allowed in 2005 are helpful but are no match for increasing costs in personnel, bus parts and fuel, Krawzoff said.

"What the decision comes down to, if you want to keep transit at status quo, (is that) we really have to expand the budget or cut out other city services," Krawzoff said.

It was a message the seven council members had heard last year and the year before.

For the past three years, Krawzoff has said the only way to meet the budget is to cut bus services. And, for the past three years, the council has pulled money from reserves, shuffled money from grants or, as was the case this year, held off on making the cuts, hoping a strong winter season would generate the needed revenue.

Krawzoff put a different twist on this year's presentation. He proposed forming an advisory committee this winter. It would comprise diverse community members with an interest in transit and be designed to look at where bus routes are needed and how to pay for them.

Most importantly, perhaps, the group would look at finding a dedicated funding source for transit.

Council President Paul Strong and Councilman Loui Antonucci agree that the community members have said clearly that more transit -- not less -- is needed.

"The truth of the matter is, we need to find a permanent funding source for it," Antonucci said.

Transit demands increase

The 2002 Community Survey and the Steamboat Springs Area Community Plan Update, which was adopted in May, support the increased use of transit.

The community survey reported that close to 90 percent of the respondents saw the system as "very important" for visitors, and about 75 percent thought it was "very important" for residents.

The community update stated that a reliance on transit to mitigate congestion would require increased investment in the transit system. The plan encouraged establishing a dedicated funding source to ensure "the transit system can grow with the community and provide service at a level that will encourage its use as an alternative to the personal vehicle."

Demands for more service have been made across Steamboat Springs. Residents would like to see bus routes extended to Steamboat II and Heritage Park, up Fish Creek Falls Road and Hilltop Parkway, and to more areas on the mountain.

Krawzoff asked the council to fund an express bus from the mountain to downtown during peak hours in the winter. Strong would like to see shorter intervals between buses leaving the Stock Bridge Transit Center to go downtown.

Councilwoman Kathy Connell has advocated building partnerships with the private sector. She said there is an inequality in how some lodging properties are served by the free bus and others are not. Many properties not on the bus route pay for shuttles to transport visitors to the ski area and downtown.

Storm Mountain condos began paying the city to stop there, and Connell thinks similar opportunities exist with other lodges.

But without a funding source, the city could be faced with more of the same.

Finding funding

Adding bus routes is expensive. City officials have said that implementing a new bus route could cost more than $400,000 in its first year and then more than $100,000 annually to maintain.

One of the most logical solutions for funding ground transit would be to charge bus fare, but doing so would risk cutting bus ridership by one-third, Strong said.

"I get the feeling the council pretty much supports keeping it free," Strong said.

Strong and Antonucci said they would support an increase in the accommodation tax dedicated to funding transit.

This November, voters will be asked to approve the formation of a local marketing district that would place an additional 2 percent tax on lodging to generate money for its air flight programs.

Antonucci said he was disappointed that ground transit is not part of the LMD proposal, which was created by the lodging community, Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. and the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association. Strong and Antonucci said that if the 3-2-1 tax -- proposed in 2001 to tax lodging, restaurants and lift-ticket sales-- had passed, funding for transit would have been stabilized.

Strong said another possible solution could be to talk to Ski Corp., which benefits from the tourists and workers the city bus transports to the mountain.

"We can't expand until we find more money," Antonucci said. "I don't know if we can cut other things to fund transportation. I don't think we can cut public works. I don't think the community will allow us to cut our purchases of open space or the recreation department."

Cuts, past and future

How to fund transportation and what to cut to make the books balance are questions the city has been grappling with for the past three years.

For the 2003 budget, Krawzoff proposed that buses run one hour later in the morning and end two hours earlier in the evening for the winter season. In the summer and shoulder season, he proposed starting buses two hours later in the morning.

Instead, the council voted to take money out of reserves to fund the $43,000 needed to keep the service at its status quo level. The city later was able to use a transportation grant to fund the service.

For the 2004 budget, cuts were proposed once again. Krawzoff proposed that buses would continue to leave Stock Bridge beginning at 6 a.m. and run to about 2 a.m., with buses running on one-hour time intervals for the first and last hour instead of every 20 minutes.

The cuts suggested in 2005 were more dramatic. Bus service during the shoulder seasons would start at 7 a.m., run on 30-minute intervals and stop at 7:30 p.m. In the spring, buses would run every 30 minutes until 9:30 p.m. and every hour until midnight.

In the fall, buses run every 20 minutes until 9 p.m. and every hour until midnight on weekdays and until 2 a.m. on weekends.

Keeping that level of service would cost the city $65,000. Antonucci suggested waiting until the winter season is under way to see how much money is coming into the city in sales-tax revenue and whether there are any partnership opportunities that would help support the route.

Krawzoff said the proposed cuts would eliminate times when the bus ridership typically is the lowest, and so should affect the fewest people.

But council members fear those riders are the ones who are the most dependent on the transit system, relying on it to get to work.

Strong remembers his days working at restaurants 12 years ago and said there is a significant difference for those who have to wait for a bus for 30 minutes compared to an hour. Having frequent and dependable bus service is essential to encouraging more people to ride.

And Antonucci and Strong said that as Steamboat grows and traffic congestion worsens, getting more people out of vehicles and into alternative modes of transportation would be crucial.

"I believe as time goes by, transit will play an ever increasing role in how the community operates," Antonucci said.

-- To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229

or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpilot.com

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