The irony was hard to miss. At Monday's City Council meeting, transit manager Sherre Ritenour told Council that with low revenues and skyrocketing costs, her department will look at slashing administrative, planning and capital costs, as well as bus service, in 2009. Earlier that same day, the Colorado Springs Chamber Rising Professionals' Lisanne McNew spoke excitedly about a future with commuter rail along the Front Range, light rail and top-notch bus service.
McNew may be a dreamer, but she's not the only one. City leaders and residents have long cherished the vision of excellent public transportation. But bridging the gap between dreams and reality will mean more money, and no one knows where that would come from. Earlier this year, Council declined to propose dedicated revenue that's a tax, in laymen's terms to support transit.
For Ritenour, it means working with what she's got, namely a mess of funding and separate budgets that don't fully fund current services.
"The least impact on the riders is where we start first," she says of possible cuts. "But it's a balance between giving us the savings that we desperately need, and trying not to negatively impact our riders."
The transit budget is funded by the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority and the city's general fund. The PPRTA and the city both can cut routes. Meanwhile, paratransit for people with disabilities piggybacks fixed routes cut the route, and you cut the paratransit service that goes with it.
The city general fund and PPRTA are $2.76 million short of what's needed to maintain the system as is. That doesn't count any cuts to the city's transit budget next year.
You can trace transit's money crunch to cost increases for managing the department and pay for workers, use of paratransit and fuel prices. Meanwhile, sales tax revenues are dipping for the city and staying flat for the PPRTA.
All this could have meant eliminating up to one-third of bus services 60,000 hours and major cuts to paratransit. Ritenour now expects trims to be more conservative, and Assistant City Manager Mike Anderson notes that cuts could be reduced further depending on what price the city pays for diesel fuel.
Ritenour is not saying how many hours the city might trim, but she is proposing an 8.67 percent cut (6,971 hours) in bus services funded by PPRTA. She's focusing on streamlining services, but she will eye slashing routes with low ridership, some evening and holiday routes, the Shopper's Special and Cheyenne Mountain Zoo routes, and express routes.
Pending PPRTA board approval, she hopes to fill the remaining gap by cutting capital, planning and administrative costs, raising bus fares 25 cents and paratransit fares 50 cents, drawing from PPRTA reserves, and possibly cutting some cleaning and security services. Riders of the Front Range Express bus may also see a $2 increase on a one-way ticket to Denver.
Ritenour says she'll look at similar cuts and efficiencies in transit's city budget proposal. The city will also consider staffing cuts.
Anderson, working closely with Ritenour on the budget, says she and her department have been "burning the midnight oil" trying to minimize the impact of cuts.
"Transit services will continue to be a challenge in 2009 and 2010," he says. "Our intention is that we want to work with City Council ... because we'd like to grow the system. We think the demand is out there."