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The little bus that couldn't 

Up until now, the FrontRange Express has been a survivor.

Consider other bus services founded with federal start-up money.

There was the Ute Pass Express, which ran up U.S. 24 until 2011; the DASH, which served Tejon Street until 2009. Both met quick, brutal fates when money ran out. But FREX, a bus route between Denver and Colorado Springs, has been around since 2004.

Like the little engine that could — or maybe the Terminator, depending on your view — FREX just kept chugging.

It continued even as water for parks ran dry during the recession, as streetlights went dark, public trash cans disappeared and local bus service was sliced and diced. Year after year, FREX made the list for budget cuts. But it survived, pulling through as it did this month when Mayor Steve Bach tried to kill it only to be rebuffed by City Council.

So it was rather unexpected when the Bach administration announced Monday night that it had found a different way to slay the beast, by refusing to renew a drivers' contract that expires at the end of August. In an e-mail to Councilors announcing the change, Mayoral Chief of Staff Laura Neumann wrote that extending the contract had been more expensive than originally thought — $425,000 for four months.

"After carefully weighing the pros and cons regarding extending the FREX contract on a month-to-month basis through year-end 2012," she wrote, "Mayor Bach has elected to allow the contract to expire as of October 11, 2012, with service ending August 31, 2012."

It would appear that the mayor's move kills FREX, ending a long debate.

"I've fought long and hard for FREX," Jan Martin, City Council president pro tem and Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority board co-chair, said, "but this is the mayor's decision, and the mayor has to take responsibility for it."

Opponents long argued that FREX's aims (promoting regionalism, cutting congestion and pollution) were too lofty for down-to-earth Colorado Springs. They said FREX riders are subsidized enough to buy each of them a car, and that FREX took shoppers out of the city. Finally, they said FREX served the least-needy at a time when money is needed for core bus routes. Neumann pointed to that last issue in her e-mail, noting that in 2010 about 200 rode FREX daily, while about 4,000 rode other city buses; the annual average income of a FREX rider was $72,000 compared to the two-thirds of regular bus riders who made less than $20,000 a year.

Supporters have countered that FREX took cars off Interstate 25 and succeeded in that its fare box recovery was 42 percent, extremely high in the transit world. They said FREX took workers out of the city, to earn incomes spent in the Springs. They argued the real financial problem wasn't FREX, but the city neglecting transit.

They pointed to the city's promise to voters when PPRTA's sales tax, which funded much of FREX, passed in 2004: that the city's general fund spending on transit would never dip below that year's level of about $5.7 million. It's currently around $3.6 million.

After years of debate and close calls, however, FREX's last stand circled around ideas of future costs and benefits. What would FREX offer the city? And would the service continue to drain PPRTA funding, or could it soon be paid for with state funds?

A long view

In recent months, the Colorado Department of Transportation has considered funding regional transportation, likely buses connecting crowded Front Range cities.

If the state stepped in, the Springs no longer would have needed to fund FREX, and current riders could have transitioned seamlessly to the new service. From the state's point of view, such a scenario was ideal. Thus, local supporters said it was worth it to keep FREX another year or two.

But opponents said if the state really wanted FREX, it would've happened by now. Indeed, Councilor Angela Dougan, who thinks FREX money is better spent on local services, feels the state should have funded FREX long ago.

Les Gruen, the region's CDOT commissioner, says that attitude appears rooted in a misunderstanding. Though it's logical that the state would pay for bus service, it never has before, and never considered such a scenario until recently. The state definitely never promised to fund FREX, Gruen says.

FREX started in 2004 as a federal pilot program, funded through 2007. When the grant expired, the city's Mountain Metropolitan Transit picked it up, receiving $6.3 million from CDOT to buy 19 new buses. Other local governments agreed to help fund FREX, then backed out in the recession, making FREX an annual city budget argument. In 2010, it narrowly survived when CDOT allowed the Springs to sell nine FREX buses and use some of the money to keep the service alive.

Mark Imhoff, director for the state's division of transit and rail, says it was tempting to think the state would soon bail Colorado Springs out. But that wasn't a sure thing, he says. Providing or funding a regional transit service is just a thought at this point — something that's being brainstormed.

"We're not in a position to commit to a time frame," he said recently, "and I believe the city needs a time frame."

Gruen agreed.

"Once the study is done, it's not even a forgone conclusion that the transportation commission is going to fund something like this," he said. "Our resources are extremely limited."

A short view

For some politicians, FREX became a final rallying cry in a lost war. Budget cuts stacked like firewood, wiping out many political dreamers' hopes. And while FREX hardly put the Springs on pace with Denver, with its light rail and walkable communities, it prevented the city from slipping into the Dark Ages.

Council President Scott Hente summarized that mood on June 12, just before a majority again voted to save FREX by continuing an intergovernmental agreement.

"I've made a lot of hard decisions on my nine years on Council, and it seems like they've always been the wrong ones because we've always been cutting," Hente said.

"You know, on a per capita basis, we've actually cut police and fire ... we've cut maintenance for streets, we've cut maintenance for stormwater facilities, we've gotten rid of hundreds of city employees, which means less services. ... We've decimated to a large part our parks budget and I guess at some point, I've got to say, from a personal standpoint, 'enough is enough.' I'm tired of cutting stuff."

Others frustrated

Hente wasn't alone.

At a recent meeting, a doctor with a rare pediatric specialty announced to City Council that she'd consider leaving the city if FREX was eliminated. Another man, Air Force retiree Freddie Love, said his wife works in Denver, and without the bus, they'd also need to move.

"If we lose FREX," he said, "that's going to determine where we call home."

While the mayor had the legal right to kill FREX, according to the city attorney's office, his power move may not turn up all the consequences he would prefer.

For starters, the mayor could have difficulty using FREX money for something else, as he'd like.

Though FREX gets no city funding, 40 percent of its $2 million budget — about $800,000 — comes from PPRTA. Coincidentally, $800,000 is the annual deficit in the city general fund transit budget. So the mayor would like to see the PPRTA funds redirected to cover that shortfall.

But that might not happen as planned. Even before the mayor canceled FREX, Martin noted PPRTA's attorney is working with the city attorney to determine how they can use the money that went to FREX.

That's not the only snag. The mayor's move will almost certainly sour already-tense relations with Council.

"The bigger picture, at least for me right now, is that it was brought before Council for a vote," Councilor Brandy Williams said. "... What was the point of bringing it in front of Council if it doesn't matter?"

stanley@csindy.com

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