Once again, the Colorado Springs government has decided not to deal with its most glaring, embarrassing problem.
We have a new structure for how our city runs, with a strong mayor as chief executive and a City Council attempting to redefine its role. We hear talk of a new spirit and direction. Yet, six months into this new local government, the No. 1 shortcoming isn't being addressed. And now it apparently won't be for at least another year.
We're talking about bus service — or the lack of it.
Mayor Steve Bach has talked recently about different ideas for making city transit better and more efficient. For example, he wonders whether smaller buses would help at certain times, or perhaps whether the city could provide vouchers for cab fares. The answer to both is, probably not. Yet, the mayor's proposed 2012 budget has no money or other ideas for improving bus service. The total expense projected for next year is $3,112,465 — exactly $25,095 less than 2011.
And though several on City Council support better service, nobody is championing the cause.
Let's review how the city's commitment to mass transit has gone downhill: 2008: $11,849,352; 2009: $8,902,452; 2010: $2,620,327; 2011: $3,137,560.
The uptick last year restored service on Saturdays. But that didn't fix the absence of buses at nights and on Sundays. City transit has a passenger advisory group, and when asked for input, those people urged extra night hours as their top priority.
It's not happening.
Meanwhile, the Gazette produced a recent editorial feeding on the negativity, announcing that "mass transit cannot thrive in the Springs." Really. Never mind that even after all the cuts, we still have an average of nearly 9,700 people (actual September numbers) using the buses each weekday — with two-thirds of them making less than $20,000 a year. More than half don't own a car. Those people, and many more who live far from current routes, have legitimate needs.
One authority on this subject is Ray Krueger, a technology consultant who labels himself a "community advocate for mobility" and facilitates the Green Cities Coalition's transportation working group. Krueger appreciates the developing 2035 area transportation plan, but first, he'd like to see a better 2012 plan.
"I really don't think using taxis is the answer," Krueger says. "When you talk about fixed-route bus service, the cost for operation is about $3 a head, per route. I don't think taxi drivers could get by on $3 a head, per route. More like $13, maybe."
Krueger and others close to the issue understand the budget reality. They have to hope for no more cuts until the city gets back to better financial shape. As Krueger puts it, "Riders don't want to see fluctuations in service."
But what's wrong with incremental progress, finding money to give passengers what they need most? Two more hours of bus service at night, so the last buses leave downtown at 8:15 p.m. instead of 6:15, could make a huge difference. Not just for low-income folks who work later hours, but for students who might take an extra night class at Pikes Peak Community College. Also, it would mean more people downtown at those hours.
Asked what that might cost, Krueger estimates $700,000 or so, depending on details and revenue from fares. But he and others have a more immediate concern. Local human-service providers need $100,000 in additional money to maintain special transit services for people with disabilities, seniors and others. They've asked the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority for help, but that's gone nowhere. They've also asked the city, but it's not in the 2012 budget, at least not yet.
Meanwhile, we hear Mayor Bach plans to assemble a task force to reconsider every aspect of local transit services. The best approach might be going to the downtown bus terminal and simply talking to people who ride the bus to their minimum-wage jobs, to find a meal at the soup kitchen, or to get medical treatment at a clinic.
These are the folks who need mass transit. They can't afford many basics. They take jobs in the service industry, often without benefits, existing at or below the poverty level. It's not a happy life for them.
Does the city care ... or not?
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