Our View: There is no free bus | SteamboatToday.com

Our View: There is no free bus

We think it's good news that the Steamboat Springs City Council is receiving blowback about cost-cutting measures this winter that have resulted in changes and reductions in Steamboat Springs Transit routes. The discontent means that people depend upon our free-to-rider bus service to get to work, school, church, shopping and skiing.

Given that the annual personnel and operations budget for SST is more than $3 million annually, we want mass transit to accomplish the goals of taking cars off the street, which in turn reduces vehicle emissions and takes pressure off parking spots while making it more affordable to live here.

For those reasons, it's troubling to hear that members of the public are telling city government that this winter's changes make it less practical and even less safe, in some cases, to use our mass transit system.

If bus riders on the city's far west side now are worried that they can't depend on SST to get them to work on time, that's a problem. If people on Whistler Road and Meadow Lane say that elimination of their closest bus stop forces them to walk an icy road to catch a bus in a neighborhood with few sidewalks, we take that seriously. And, if vacationers have to struggle to understand the new bus routes, the cutbacks may be self-defeating.

As a result, we find ourselves wondering if the free-to-rider model is becoming unsustainable. Other Colorado ski communities like Aspen and Summit County have free-to-rider buses but rely on dedicated sales taxes to fund them.

City Transit Manager Jonathan Flint said he is having difficulty recruiting and retaining enough seasonal bus drivers this winter to keep bus routes at full strength. That's not exactly a new problem at SST. In 2006, Steamboat hired nine international bus drivers in order to get through the winter. It was expensive but effective.

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City Manager Deb Hinsvark attributes some of the difficulty in hiring transit drivers this winter to easy access to legal marijuana here and the reality that transit bus drivers are subject to random drug tests. We think that's entirely plausible. But other factors that are impacting many employers here surely also have contributed to the challenges at SST. Most significant, perhaps, is the acute shortage of rental housing.

Also pertinent is the fact that SST must compete with property management companies for drivers. We have contended in the past that the free-to-rider bus system is a fitting reward for our winter visitors who support our city government through sales taxes.

However, a large share of Steamboat's resort lodging properties build the cost of private on-demand shuttle service into their room rates, and their drivers, in many cases, can look forward to supplementing their wages with tips. That leaves lodges whose nightly rates don't support a free shuttle service to be subsidized by the free-to-rider city buses in winter.

Other ski towns also offer at least some level of free bus service, notably Summit County through Summit Stage as well as Aspen/Roaring Fork Valley. But the mass transit model in those expanded communities is very different from Steamboat's.

Summit Stage is a county entity overseen by board members from four towns and four skier areas. It is funded by a dedicated 75-cent sales tax and was a $7.3 million operation in 2011. Still, news accounts reflect that the transit system had to cut early morning commuter routes in 2013 to address a $300,000 budget shortfall.

Roaring Fork Transit Authority, which runs free buses in Aspen and between Aspen and Snowmass, also operates commuter buses to Basalt, Glenwood Springs and all the way to Rifle. RFTA had $17.3 million in dedicated sales tax revenues in 2014 and total revenues of $26.5 million.

Within the city of Glenwood, Ride Glenwood Springs charges riders a bus fare of $1 per day with substantial discounts for multi-day passes.

SST's budget for personnel and operations in 2015 is $3.2 million, and this year, the transit system will carry more than a million passengers again. If Steamboat bus riders were required to use transit debit cards to pay a nominal 25 cents per ride, the transit system could generate roughly $250,000 in revenue with which to offer a competitive wage that might attract more bus drivers.

At issue

Cuts in city bus schedule irritate riders.

Our view

Better to charge a modest fee than to diminish service and defeat Steamboat Springs Transit’s purpose.