City eyes major cuts to free bus service to balance 2013 budget
September 27, 2012
Steamboat Springs — Lexi Miller recently asked Google Maps what her life would be like without the city’s free Yellow Line bus.
She didn’t like Google’s answer.
"My fastest mode of transport to school would be my bike," the Colorado Mountain College student said Thursday. "It would take me 17 to 20 minutes to bike from my house on Broad Street to (the Alpine Campus). In the wintertime, I would walk. It would be more like 30 minutes, and it would be more dangerous."
Miller, who doesn’t have a car, recently learned that on Tuesday morning, city officials will present a 2013 budget to the Steamboat Springs City Council that would ax the Yellow Line, drastically reduce evening bus service in the summer and eliminate nine full-time driving positions.
Deputy City Manager Deb Hinsvark said the $350,000 worth of proposed cuts to free transit, combined with some restructuring of the city’s fire department and scaling back of the city manager’s contingency and economic development budgets, will help close a $600,000 budget deficit for next year.
The cuts also will allow the city to tap into its reserve funds only to make a $330,000 debt payment on the Iron Horse Inn.
Hinsvark said as the city worked to meet the council’s conservative request to budget for 2013 without expecting any gains in revenue, it found it was limited in what it could cut to close the budget deficit.
"You can’t reduce your fire and police departments, and our parks and recreation department has already had some severe cuts to their total number of personnel in recent years," Hinsvark said. "We just really didn’t have a lot of places to look" to balance the budget.
As the city claims the cuts to its transit department will make it more efficient and provide the best way to balance the budget, Yellow Line riders like Miller are moving forward with a hurried grass-roots campaign to persuade City Council to save the bus service.
Riders likely will find out the fate of the bus route at the council’s budget retreat Tuesday.
The costliest color
Questions about whether to discontinue the Yellow Line aren’t new to the City Council chambers.
The line — which services CMC, Old Town, the Hilltop area, Howelsen Hill and Fairview — is the city’s least-used route, and it costs the city the most per passenger to operate.
According to the transit department, 28,730 passengers used the route in 2011, and it cost $289,179 to operate. Those passengers represented about 3 percent of the 1.05 million riders who utilized Steamboat Springs Transit last year.
The city estimated it paid an average of $10.07 per Yellow Line rider per trip, which is much higher than Steamboat Springs Transit’s overall cost of $2.74 per rider per trip.
Citing that low ridership and the high price tag of running the Yellow Line last year, City Council President Bart Kounovsky and council member Cari Hermacinski said in April that they were leery of continuing the route next year, and they voted against the city’s request to pursue a grant to operate a new bus on the route.
"I think we've got to be able to do this in a more efficient and effective way," Kounovsky said in April about the operation of the Yellow Line. "If (CMC) has half the ridership on that route, and they are telling us they don't need the service or they don't want to pay for it, I struggle with that."
CMC, one of route’s biggest users, had told the city it may not be able to continue contributing money to the route because of budget constraints. In 2011, the college contributed $38,000 to the route’s operating costs.
On Thursday, an official at the campus said he hopes the route continues.
"It is a crucial link to the campus," said Brian Hoza, the Alpine Campus’ dean of student affairs. "The people who use that line to get on campus use it as their primary means of transport. We’re trying to develop more sustainable lifestyles and encourage public transport here, and it feels like (eliminating the Yellow Line) is going the wrong direction for what our students need."
He said some CMC students are working to persuade the City Council to not approve the city’s proposal.
Getting used to free
Earlier this week, Miller started an online and paper petition that has gathered more than 250 signatures from residents who say they depend on the free bus service to get around town.
"The Yellow Line is very important to me," Miller said. "If it’s cut, I think there’s going to be a chain reaction, and we’re going to start losing more of our public transportation, which is pretty vital to our community."
Community members have signed the petition explaining why they depend on the service.
From her home on Logan Street in Old Town, longtime Steamboat resident Maybelle Chotvacs said ending the service would hurt locals like herself.
“If we never had the bus, it would be different,” she said. “But we have had the bus for several years now, and if they take it away, it’s going to inconvenience a lot of people.”
A $350,000 challenge
Steamboat Springs Transit Operations Manager Jonathan Flint said the city’s directive to cut $350,000 from his budget was a challenge for a department that always is working to increase efficiency without reducing services.
After he showed off the features of his headquarters Thursday, Flint said cost-cutting is an annual goal for his department.
Recycled oil is used to heat the transit department’s headquarters. Bus routes have been finessed in recent years to save gas and defer maintenance. New Hybrid buses have saved the city thousands of dollars in fuel. Even the water used to wash the buses is recycled.
But Flint said in this tough budget year, the efficiencies can go only so far.
After six to eight weeks of examining bus ridership data and looking for other possible ways to save money, the director put a whole bus route and the employment of several of his drivers on the chopping block, among other things.
"I feel very confident we’ve already cut all the peripheral things we could," he said. "The next step, unfortunately, is service reductions. It’s a tough thing all around for us looking at reducing the service — for the drivers who provide the service, for the passengers and for the council that makes the final decision."
In addition to eliminating nine full-time driving positions and replacing some of them with seasonal slots, the proposed cuts to the transit system would conclude summer bus service at 7 p.m. instead of midnight, and also eliminate about 14 stops across town.
In his office that is adorned with several model buses, Flint said he understands the city’s need to cut costs in tough financial times. He also said he respects the tough decisions city staff and the City Council ultimately will make when they work to approve a budget this year.
But in an ideal world without budget cuts, Flint said the Yellow Line and the current level of personnel would remain.
"I think we’re hitting a good target," he said. "For where we are right now with the community that we serve, the transit system is doing a good job."
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com