They are bundled up in a wheelchair on a street corner in December, or hustling their kids along the crosswalk at dawn. They are grandparents with canes carefully making their way down the uneven sidewalk.
About 30,000 people in the Colorado Springs metro area depend on the transit system as their only means of transportation. Counting on the bus has become more and more difficult in the past couple years, as city budget cuts have led to discontinued routes all over the city. But come later this year or early next year, the lives of the transit-dependent will likely get a lot worse.
Jobs will be lost. Meals skipped. Doctors' visits cancelled.
Very soon, buses could be running nearly 63,000 fewer hours a year, says Sherre Ritenour, manager of Mountain Metropolitan Transit. That probably means routes to Schriever Air Force Base and Fort Carson will disappear; weekend, holiday and evening service (after 6 or 6:30 p.m.) will vanish; and buses that used to run every 30 minutes would come hourly. The city will drop its oldest transit service contract, leading to scores of layoffs of bus drivers and mechanics — some of which may have been on the job since the '70s.
Susan Whited lives in Stratmoor Hills and uses a wheelchair. She says she's upset to hear that half the transit system could soon be gone, and thinks there must be some other place to cut. For Whited, the changes may mean she can no longer coach her 14-year-old daughter's soccer team, as she's done since 2001. Or even go to the games.
Getting a ride from a friend is hardly an option, she says, because "I have to be picked up and carried."
With tax collections sinking, the city is preparing to cut $28 million from the city budget — a move that will likely decimate the parks and recreation department, claim the jobs of dozens of cops and firefighters, and halve transit hours.
The only bus service that will remain is paid for by the sales-tax-fueled Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority. When voters approved that tax in 2004, its wording said that the city's "intent" would be to retain its funding for transit. Now, Ritenour says, the city believes it can skirt that responsibility.
"If the money isn't there," she says, "certainly, it would be extremely difficult to [fund] that."
Unless City Council decides it wants to cut more deeply elsewhere — and there aren't many options — the only way transit will be spared is if voters approve a property tax increase on November ballot.
Ritenour is already preparing her department for the worst. She says she can park some of the buses, but will need to sell older buses, which means the system would take a while to bounce back to its current size if and when the economy recovers.
Perhaps the hardest hit by the cuts are people with disabilities, says Andrea Archer, an advocate at the Colorado Springs Independence Center. Archer is helping to organize a meeting later this month to help the transit community understand the changes and hopefully cope.
Most people in her circle, she worries, have no idea what could happen.
"My big push is people have the right to know," Archer says of the budget cuts. "People have the right to know what's happening to their life based on City Council's decisions."