City officials weigh more efficient ways to run Yellow Line, the costliest and least-used bus service
October 3, 2012
Steamboat Springs — The Yellow Line is off the chopping block, but its long-term future is far from certain.
Steamboat Springs city officials said Wednesday that they already are weighing plans to make the free bus route more cost effective after City Council on Tuesday voted down $350,000 worth of cuts to Steamboat Springs Transit that would have eliminated the Yellow Line, cut nine full-time driving positions and drastically reduced evening bus service in the summer.
"We’re again looking at some privatization ideas, and we are planning to talk to those people who use the Yellow Line to see if there are any partnership opportunities on the cost of running it," Deputy City Manager Deb Hinsvark said.
She named Colorado Mountain College, Horizons Specialized Services and the Yampa Valley Housing Authority as the major partners the city will work with to come up with a long-term solution for the bus service.
City officials eyed the elimination of the Yellow Line to balance the 2013 budget because the route is the city’s least utilized and by far the most expensive, with an average cost of $10.07 per passenger per ride to operate.
Before they voted to save the line for at least another year, City Council members discussed ways the route could be made more efficient. They asked whether a fee could be introduced on its passengers, whether a smaller bus could replace the Hybrid buses that run the route, whether it could be privatized or whether it could be scaled back to an on-call service.
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Steamboat Springs Transit Director Jonathan Flint said each of those alternatives would introduce its own set of challenges. He estimated a fee system would add 15 minutes to a one-hour route and said the devices needed to accept fares cost as much as $30,000 each.
He said using a smaller vehicle or changing the route to an on-call system wouldn’t drastically increase the efficiency of the Yellow Line.
"We just didn’t see many efficiencies in changing the hours of operation or the style of operation," Flint said, adding that it took more drastic changes, including the elimination of service, to meet the city’s directive to cut $350,000 from his budget.
The Yellow Line cost $289,179 to operate last year.
Recognizing the high cost per passenger, city officials said they did solicit bids in November to have the service run by a private company.
Public Works Director Chuck Anderson said the bid that came back from Alpine Taxi was about 30 percent higher than what the city was paying to operate the service.
Still, council members are wondering whether potential savings in the capital costs of running the route could make privatization a viable option.
One council member also issued his own challenge to Yellow Line riders.
"The more riders you have, the more efficient the service becomes," Scott Myller told the crowd of Yellow Line supporters who packed Centennial Hall on Tuesday to defend the service.
Colorado Mountain College this year contributed $38,000 to the Yellow Line’s operation because of its major construction project and the resulting temporary elimination of parking. But city officials said in April that they were told the college likely wouldn’t contribute financially to the route’s operation in 2013 because of budget restrictions.
Two City Council members are looking specifically to CMC for help in operating the line.
"My biggest issue (with the Yellow Line) is with our partner up there at the college," council President Bart Kounovsky said Tuesday, adding that he saw its lack of financial contribution as a sign it doesn’t value the service.
Cari Hermacinski also equated CMC’s contribution to the line as just a drop in the bucket.
CMC Alpine Campus CEO Peter Perhac could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
CMC officials, students and stakeholders in recent days have advocated strongly for the service.
Routt County's CMC trustee Ken Brenner said Wednesday that he was relieved the Yellow Line service wouldn’t be cut. He said he recently talked with Perhac about the Yellow Line service and learned the college’s budget this year would make it difficult to contribute to the route.
Brenner added that he felt any additional financial support for the bus service should come from multiple partners, not just the college.
"It’s fair to have groups who benefit from the service to participate in a partnership, but it should be done symmetrically through the system," Brenner said. "If we’re going to collect money to support the bus service, let’s make sure we do it from all the different sectors of the community that are benefiting from having the system."
As is the case with CMC, the budgets of other potential Yellow Line partners are tight.
Susan Mizen, the executive director of Horizons Specialized Services, said she’s learned this week that her clients use the Yellow Line more than she realized.
"We’re all so happy it wasn’t cut," Mizen said. "We’re always encouraging our clients to take the bus because it is a form of community support."
Mizen said that she’s open to meeting with city officials to discuss a potential financial partnership but that it would be hard to find room in Horizon’s budget, which is tight this year after reductions to Medicaid funding.
"We would have to figure out another way to contribute," she said. "Maybe we could write a grant. We’re willing to be creative because this service is even more valuable to our clients than I realized."
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com