Our View: Riders returning to commuter bus

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If you already were planning to commute between Craig and Steamboat Springs this winter for work or school and we said you could save $5,000 to $10,000 annually by riding the Steamboat Springs Transit regional bus, you’d seize the opportunity, wouldn’t you?

Steamboat Today editorial board — June to December 2013

  • Suzanne Schlicht, COO and publisher
  • Lisa Schlichtman, editor
  • Tom Ross, reporter
  • David Baldinger Jr., community representative
  • Lisa Brown, community representative

Contact the editorial board at 970-871-4221 or editor@SteamboatToday.com. Would you like to be a member of the board? Fill out a letter of interest now.

Taxpayers, through four local governments, effectively are paying commuters to leave their cars at home and ride the regional bus. The higher the ridership, the more effective the subsidies are.

The Craig Daily Press published an encouraging report this week detailing how ridership on the bus is recovering after dipping significantly during the national economic downturn. Annual ridership that reached 38,000 in 2008 plunged to 26,000 in 2009 and dropped even further in 2010. This year, city of Steamboat Springs Transit Manager Jonathan Flint said the regional bus is on track to reach 27,000 by the end of 2013.

We welcomed that news because we think the availability of regional mass transit is beneficial on several levels. It reduces the numbers of cars on busy U.S. Highway 40 in a more sustainable way while improving safety.

The regional bus also supports local businesses by connecting the workforce with jobs while making it feasible for people to absorb an 84-mile daily commute for what may be modest compensation.

Finally, the regional bus is one of the best examples of collaboration among the cities of Steamboat and Craig, and the counties of Routt and Moffat. Hayden and west Steamboat also benefit from regional bus stops.

However, the positive trend must continue to expand. At current ridership levels, each trip is heavily subsidized.

The best deal for passengers is to purchase an open-ended 10-ride pass for $40, and 78 percent of passengers currently take advantage. One commuter told the Daily Press that before buying a $40 bus pass, she was spending $68 to $80 weekly on gas before factoring in oil and tires and presumably higher insurance premiums based on miles driven.

Flint told us the annual cost of the regional bus is $240,300. There are two roundtrips daily on two over-the-road buses with a third bus standing by in case it is needed.

Routt County, Moffat County and the city of Craig combine to contribute $54,000 annually to the program. Fares cover another $80,000 of the cost, leaving the city of Steamboat to cover the remaining $106,300.

In 2012, that per-passenger subsidy was $6.90 per one-way trip or $13.80 per roundtrip. If ridership continues on its current track, the per passenger subsidy will drop to $5.90 each way in 2013. The system needs to continue to improve on that mark, both to reduce the per-passenger subsidy and reap more of the benefits mass transit provides.

Flint relies on AAA’s 2011 estimate of the typical per-mile cost of driving a motor vehicle to conclude that commuting on the SST bus between Steamboat and Craig five days per week year-round would save commuters about $10,000 annually. Of course, that will vary with the fuel efficiency of different vehicles and regional gas prices.

We’re pleased that local governments recognized the value of sticking with the regional commuter bus through the recession and beyond. And we’re hopeful that more commuters will seize that opportunity.

Comments

Scott Ford 5 months, 3 weeks ago

What is the desired outcome of the SST Regional Bus Service? In addition, who benefits and therefore who should pay. I am going to do my very best as I become a member of City Council to bring some rigger to the process of defining desired outcomes. I am going to need a wee-bit more information than telling me how many people got on the bus.

We have some very good data about commuters between Moffat and Routt counties. This data can provide some insights to the commuting patterns between the two communities.
In 2011 about 10,400 individuals over age 16 lived in Moffat County. This is their work force. Of this work force about 70% (7,300) worked at some point during the year. This is their labor force. Of this labor force about 2/3 were working full-time.

This labor force gets work by various means. About 88% drive, 5% work from home, 4% walk, 1.5% take public transportation and 1.5% ride a bicycle or motorcycle. Of those driving (car, van or truck) 83% drove by themselves. 17% carpooled. Of those driving the average number of passengers per vehicle was 1.13.

77% of Moffat County’s resident labor force worked in the county. 22% worked outside of the county and 1% worked out of the state. Of the 22% living in Moffat County but working outside the county about 1,000 were coming to Routt County with about 850 of these jobs considered full-time. Of these 850 full-time jobs about 450 were coming into Steamboat Springs.

Assuming these full time jobs were working 260 days per year there would be 117,000 worker trips annually. Assuming that balance of 150 were all working in Steamboat Springs were working at least 50% of the time this would add another 20,000 worker trips for a total or a potential of 137,000 worker trips annually.

It looks to me the regional bus service is capturing about 20% of the commuting traffic. If SST counts passengers like YVRA does each person is counted essentially twice once leaving and once returning. If this is the case the utilization would need to be divided by 2. How does SST regional bus utilization compare to that of the Roaring Fork Transit Authority?

Data Sources: US Census Bureau American Community Survey and the Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics

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Scott Wedel 5 months, 2 weeks ago

Or divide 27,000 by 365 for about 80 trips a day. Figure most are round trip so that is about 40 riders a day. Figure in days not coming to SB and part time riders then you probably have a core ridership of about 100 people.

And compare that 80 passengers per day to the CDOT reported daily average of about 5,000 on that section of hwy 40 then the buses reduce vehicle trips by about 1.5%.

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walt jones 5 months, 3 weeks ago

Scott,

Please also reel in the line of Deb Hinsvark who seems to be running the city into the ground with her decision making.

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Scott Wedel 5 months, 3 weeks ago

What is not clear from the data is whether it is believed ridership is increasing because workers are switching from cars or if there are more workers in Craig that the drive is too expensive. It is clear that public transit is not being used as a means of solving congestion because hwy 40 is not congested. The Roaring Fork transit agency is trying to reduce traffic congestion and so public transit benefits everyone.

Seeing how workforce housing has gotten tighter in SB and nearby then I think increased ridership reflects an increase of people living in Craig whom cannot find housing closer to Steamboat.

The challenge for SB government is that it has embarked on an economic policy of tourism and tourism businesses want low paying service staff. So one of the inputs needed to continue to fuel the tourism economy is subsidizing the commute for low income employees.

This is a reasonable short term decision. I doubt that Craig is building more low cost housing so this is not a long term solution.

I think there is a general problem of SB city government embarking on programs that are short term solutions and should not be expected to work in the longer term. The flight subsidy program is a get it while you can program that consistently needs more to get less. There is no hint of a plausible longer term workforce housing program.

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Stuart Orzach 5 months, 2 weeks ago

Now, if you could just bring some rigor to your spelling..........But I'll certainly keep you in mind for my next raft trip.

But seriously, you're asking the right questions, Scott. What is the purpose of the program? What is the goal? Is there a time frame to reach the goal? Were there criteria established for evaluating success or for pulling the plug? Are there periodic reviews and evaluation? Who pays? Who benefits? Is it worth it?

Is this a wage subsidy for employers disguised as a "feel good" environmental program? Are we encouraging an irresponsible, unsustainable type of growth?

Are we reducing road congestion? Cutting down on the number of accidents? Improving air quality? Reducing demand for parking spaces in Steamboat Springs? Improving quality of life?

Who initiated this program and why? Did they have a plan? Is it in writing or are we relying on institutional memory? Do all the subsidies fluctuate or only Steamboat's? These few numbers, out of context, only tell us that taxpayers are paying for something, and the price fluctuates due to variable demand and substantial fixed costs.

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Scott Wedel 5 months, 2 weeks ago

BTW, SB is not just paying for the bus service between two cities in two different counties, but uses a bus station in Craig that is owned by SB which SB paid a chunk of 2009. So SB city government has fairly recently decided that it is a priority to provide bus service to Craig.

According to CDOT, hwy 82 to Aspen has about 20,000 vehicles a day and hwy 40 to Craig has about 5,000.

I think what is truly missing for SB is a credible Comprehensive Economic Plan document. Not a communist manifesto and an official 5 year plan, but a document explaining the overall plan for all of government money being spent to promote economic activity and to then mitigate the consequences of economic activity.

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John Fielding 5 months, 2 weeks ago

I still have to wonder about the $10,000 savings. It only seems realistic from a tax deduction perspective, most people would rationalize things like, "I am going to own a car anyway, so that part of the cost does not matter to me".

But if we use that figure there is enough savings to the rider to allow a much higher fare and still save them plenty. Figure $2000 is their current bus fare @ 500 trips/year. Add the 10G savings and you have 12.000. Take the subsidy of $7 per trip x 500 is 3,500, plus the existing fare = $5500, from $12,000 = $6,500.

So if they pay the full price of $5,500 they will still save $6,500. Is that not enough savings?

Or do they figure my car gets 22 mpg so the drive costs me 2 gallons each way, at say $4.00, so $16 per day, $4000/year, and my repairs, insurance and the like are minimal and I'd do that anyway? That is the real calculation of many, and the reason for the subsidy.

Even so, if we charge the actual cost, it is about the price of gas, so won't most people still accept the other savings and comfort of being chauffeured? Or if it only costs the price of a lunch sandwich to have your own car, will more people opt for that luxury of independent schedule?

Only one way to find out, but I bet we never try.

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John Fielding 5 months, 2 weeks ago

Here is an even more interesting concept. We set the rates at what it costs the City to provide the service and see if private competition springs up at lower prices.

Whaddaya wannabet?

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John Fielding 5 months, 2 weeks ago

PS Stuart, there was no misspelling, Scott Ford said he is going to have someone rig the process of defining desired outcomes.

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Scott Wedel 5 months, 2 weeks ago

John,

Trouble with raising fares is that if that decreases ridership then it wouldn't lead to any cost savings. The costs are almost entirely fixed from the bus driver, the bus, fuel and associated costs of having a back up bus. Some of those costs such as the back up bus would not be eliminated from SB Transit if this bus line was cut because the bus also backs up other SB transit routes.

Public transit also fills a role of being an alternative for the public. So people can get to their jobs when their car is being repaired. Those people may not ride the bus very often, but having that as back up allows them to keep their jobs.

It makes little sense to try something on the claim that there is "Only one way to find out" because trying the new way could be far worse than the current way.

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Scott Wedel 5 months, 2 weeks ago

What I think is missing is the overall plan in which bus service fulfills a stated purpose.

It is obviously helping people live in Craig and work in SB. Fair enough. Delivering an employee to a SB business so that various services are done relatively cheaply can be viewed as providing a favorable business environment.

On the other hand, SB focuses all of the efforts on affordable and workforce housing within SB city limits. It is stated that having workers live in the city is a core community value. It is stated that having workers travel from Hayden or Stagecoach is undesirable because of the traffic and the workers having the burden of the transportation costs.

So what is it? Subsidizing long commutes for some of the workforce or needing to get them to live in SB? This is like how the federal government subsidies tobacco growers and then discourages the public from using tobacco. Spending money to fix a problem that it is spending money creating.

Personally, I think it is reasonable for SB government to be concerned with the availability of nearby workforce housing and that many are commuting from Craig. The SB service economy needs workers and having a shortage of workers increases costs for businesses. So if SB government feels compelled to spend money on creating workforce housing then it should consider that a regional issue and be willing to encourage adding units in nearby towns as well.

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John Fielding 5 months, 2 weeks ago

Of course there need to be subsidies to sustain the current model of a big bus twice a day. That is geared toward having the lowest per passenger cost possible but only works when the buses are near full. Other models would utilize smaller vehicles, more departure and return times and locations, and in many cases a driver whose compensation was partly in the forms of vehicle ownership and the tax advantages inherent in self employment or utilizing the service to get to and from their own job.

I would be very interested in having comparisons presented that follow a van pool type alternative, with the objectives including maximizing benefits to those who would take some extra time in their daily routine to accomodate the needs of other passangers for time and location flexibility. Several sizes of vehicles should be included, from 8 to 20 or so passenger capacities. Each should have an extra seat or two above normal reservations to allow the riders from other shuttles to keep flexibility, take an earlier of later ride sometimes.

Let the costs be analyzed, then decide if there is any need for a subsidy, and if so, where it could be most effectively applied. Maybe gas vouchers for anyone driving with an extra passanger or two in their own car.

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Scott Wedel 5 months, 2 weeks ago

The size of the bus does not change the costs very much.

You mention a bunch of options that are all inherently less reliable. People relying upon public transit need a reliable service and cannot afford to miss shifts because some privately owned bus is broken or the owner/driver is sick that day.

People already carpool and offering subsidies for that would just pay people for what they are already doing. And it adds a new issue of worrying about people scamming it to get gas vouchers.

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Scott Ford 5 months, 2 weeks ago

Gentlemen – I am enjoying the exchange. I do not want to be misunderstood of wanting to eliminate regional bus service. I am, however, trying to better understand two intertwined questions. 1) What is the desired outcome and how is it being measures? 2) Who “benefits” and therefore who should pay?

Anytime City taxpayer funds are being used beyond providing essential services and taking care of what it already owns, I think we need to ask versions of these questions. This is because it’s tempting for folks to look to the City as the source of funding/fixing problems that are beyond its core responsibilities. This does not mean that the City cannot acknowledge that a problem exists, however, it may not be a problem it should take responsibility for and therefore do something about it. Just because the City can do something does not mean it should.

Should the City play a role in helping employers in Steamboat Springs with the challenges they face in securing a labor force? This question ranges from transportation to housing. I am interested in hearing other’s perspective and reasoning.

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Scott Wedel 5 months, 2 weeks ago

Should the City play a role in helping employers in Steamboat Springs with the challenges they face in securing a labor force?

A: That should be considered to be closely related with the city's efforts in promoting tourism. If millions of local taxpayer dollars are going to be spent to promote tourism and subsidize tourist oriented airline flights then we need local businesses able to provide services for tourists and that includes low wage service workers.

SB could decide to get out of the tourism competition and accept however many tourists that do come here as the natural level and then not worry about the side effects of not heavily promoting tourism.

You do not modify a car to run on nitro without improving the rest of the car to handle the power and resulting speed.

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John Fielding 5 months, 2 weeks ago

Like Scott F. said, identify objectives.

If the end is to get people from inexpensive living places easy cheap ways to commute to work in an expensive one, that is an employers and employees objective.

A primary role in providing that service should be by those beneficiaries. A business association coordinated van pooling cooperative is a logical step, and would exist to a far greater extent if we lived in a city that did not have a heavily subsidized (completely free local) bus service.

Thank you Scott F. for what promises to be a refreshingly honest and transparent discussion of proprieties.

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Steve Lewis 5 months, 2 weeks ago

Accurately responding to the questions posed should include a more fundamental question: Should a governmental entity have in its agenda the goal of increasing or stabilizing its future revenues?

If the answer is "yes", doesn't it follow our City government should be engaged in economic stimuli intended to increase sales taxes? And labor force enhancements for better private sector growth?

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Scott Wedel 5 months, 2 weeks ago

Should a governmental entity have in its agenda the goal of increasing or stabilizing its future revenues?

Well, some believe that the economy revolves around the city government. And that mentality is central to how much SB city government is involved with promoting tourism.

Others believe that government should just focus on providing essential services and let the private sector grow the economy.

An analogy is that government provides the playing field upon which the private sector plays.

Now, some believe the best way to develop strong players is to have government control what sport is played when and provide coaching to develop the players by assessing their talents and putting them into the right position on the field.

Others say let the kids play on the field and let them develop in unexpected ways. Who would have guessed that a too small kid like Lionel Messi would grow into the greatest goal scorer of his generation?

There are reasons why Silicon Valley is not called San Jose Tech or whatever. San Jose, by far the largest city there, spent decades trying to pick winners allowed to locate in their city. Meanwhile, Cupertino, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Palo Alto and so on had simple straightforward rules for building office space and accepting tenants. So Apple is in Cupertino and not San Jose, Ebay Google, Oracle and basically every company is not in San Jose. San Jose has since figured it out a bit and attracted some companies, but it is still amazing how San Jose is basically the donut hole of Silicon Valley.

There is even the relatively small city of Santa Clara that is the home of Intel and others. City of Santa Clara is going to be the new home of SF 49ers.

So I believe that the more government tries to pick winners and losers then the more the lose out on the companies too busy and involved with their business to deal with politics. Anyone with any tech company experience recognized that Solyndra was a disaster once they spent money on a fancy HQ building instead of their core business Apple was a billion dollar company with a HQ building comparable to SB's public services building. I doubt Wozniak ever had an office as nice as what the proposed police station says is needed by our exalted police chief.

So no, the SB City government should not be such an egomaniac that it thinks it can control it's future revenues by trying to direct and subsidize the private sector.

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Fred Duckels 5 months, 2 weeks ago

I always watch the busses for riders and I find the city numbers very high but I could be wrong.

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John Fielding 5 months, 2 weeks ago

The role of City government in affecting future revenues is real, but the effect it is able to achieve is all too often negative. If we eliminate the negative in the form of burdensome restrictions the result will be that many more and diverse businesses will prosper. This is especially important in the sole proprietor start-ups where investment capital and time to spend on applications and compliance are limited. A great potential for economic benefit to the individuals and by extension the community and its government exists in the substantial deregulation of small business.

There are plenty of people who have struggled with the processes who will be eager to relate their experience for the benefit of those to follow. But no one is listening. Fortunately, we have two new council members who have stated their commitment to helping guide the City government is a direction that will be more conducive to the success of diverse economic activity. Tony, Scott, please, help to establish a formal and effective listening post for the concerns of the citizens as a first step toward strengthening the economy of the community.

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