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City pays extra for contracted-out transit expenses 

Along a short, grassy stretch of road, the city owns a large maintenance building, a warehouse garage, a lovely office building and a few trailers.

It seems like the perfect spot to base the city's bus system. The maintenance facility and garage were built for buses, the city's transit dispatch and administration operate within the office building, and the stretch of road is called Transit Drive.

But there aren't any buses around here. In fact, every structure but the office building is vacant. And they're going to stay that way until 2011.

In the meantime, the city is running its buses out of a campus in north Colorado Springs. City contractor First Transit (which employs the bus drivers and other workers) rents that property, and the city — as a stipulation of its contract — foots the bill: approximately $157,000 a year. The city also pays nearly $100,000 a year for separate campuses for the FrontRange Express bus operation, and paratransit services for those with disabilities.

This despite the fact that all three operations would fit neatly on the Transit Drive property, which is located off South Hancock Expressway near Evergreen Cemetery, at zero cost to the city.

Craig Blewitt, manager of the city's Mountain Metropolitan Transit bus service, admits this is a less-than-ideal situation, but there's nothing he can do about it right now.

"Unless First Transit [chooses to move] down here," he says with a sigh, "yes, it will remain vacant until the end of the year."

In the beginning ...

One of the biggest victims of this year's city budget bludgeoning, of course, was the bus system. With night and weekend service killed, the hours buses run were halved, causing some bus riders to lose their jobs and others to struggle in getting to the store or doctor. There were also scores of bus drivers — most longtime city drivers — who lost their jobs.

When those cuts were announced, the city had been operating with two transit contracts for years. One contract was paid for by the city's general fund, the other from the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority's dedicated sales tax. Both contracts were held by First Transit.

The city decided to nix its general fund contract, leading to the layoff of dozens of experienced union workers (See "End of the Road," News, December 3). The layoffs, and their associated costs, have led to tense legal negotiations between First Transit, the city and union workers, with millions of dollars at stake.

The layoffs also led to those empty buildings — because the now-defunct general fund contract operated out of the Transit Drive facilities. While it would make sense for the city to bring its remaining contractors to Transit Drive, that isn't an option. The contractors have a legal right to remain on their rented properties through 2011, and they have leases that last through the end of the year.

"We're pretty settled in at this time," First Transit spokesperson Timothy Stokes says. "So, at this time, it just wouldn't be practical to [move]."

Andrea Archer, a transit activist and participant in the Green Cities Coalition Transportation Working Group, says transit riders hate to hear about wasted money — even if it's unavoidable. After years of service cuts, she says, bus riders don't trust the city.

"I've heard people say over and over and over again that the general feel from the citizenship of this city is there's a lot of distrust for this Council, and how the money is spent, and where the priorities are," Archer says.

There's always next year

The empty buildings on Transit Drive are undergoing maintenance that will last through April. Over the years, a few problems have cropped up — such as water damage in the bus washing area — and this seems like a good time to fix them, Blewitt explains.

When the maintenance is done, the buildings will be mothballed until January — at a cost of about $52,000 to $57,000 (which will cover costs such as utilities). On the bright side, the city was able to save about $12,000 by returning a couple rented trailers it no longer needs.

Blewitt says plans are well underway to build another office building on Transit Drive — with $1.7 to $1.8 million in federal funds for capital projects only — that will make it possible in the future to house the entire transit operation on this site without having to rent any property or mobile units. Plans are for the new building to be ready to occupy by the end of 2010.

"Next year," he says, "we're going to be saving money."

It's not likely those savings will translate into a large increase in bus service. But other plans now on the table might help. Archer says she and other Transportation Working Group participants are working on a plan that would ask voters to approve a special tax to fund transit. Also, City Councilor Jan Martin says she's asking U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet to secure federal money for bus service, instead of the much more common grants that are only for capital projects. But it's slow going.

"I worry about transit so much, and I'm always trying to find ways to find some operating dollars that we could put back into transit," Martin says. "As hard as I've looked, I haven't been able to find any operating dollars."

stanley@csindy.com

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