Changing routes 

Over the years, Ray Krueger logged countless hours on Colorado Springs volunteer boards, nurturing his dream of one day living in a city with excellent public transportation.

He'll soon get his wish. When his aging dog passes away, the retired tech worker plans to move to Seattle.

Known largely for his role as Green Cities Coalition Transportation Working Group facilitator, Krueger helped put together the Future of Regional Transit Plan, which had suggested creating a Regional Transit Board with a dedicated funding stream. The plan would have freed transit from city and county budget axes that have decimated its funding in recent years.

But that plan hasn't come to fruition. When Mayor Steve Bach came to office, Krueger says, he brought with him his own ideas about how to approach transit. The work Krueger and others put in went "into the black hole of the mayor's office," he says, as Bach appointed his own Transportation Solutions Team.

Led by former Boulder planner Robert Shonkwiler, the Solutions Team presented its findings to City Council on Monday. Among its recommendations: Kill funding for the FrontRange Express (FREX) bus to and from Denver (with service likely ceasing in August); allow the city to continue to subsidize nonprofits that give rides to seniors and the disabled, but make them bid against each other for the dollars; establish a central call center for such specialized rides; use more shorter, 30-foot buses to save gas; up the cost of a ride with the city's paratransit buses from $3 to $3.50; and eliminate "no advertising" zones for bus benches and shelters along parts of Colorado and North Cascade avenues.

The plan is already drawing criticism from some, like Stuart Watt, information and referral specialist at the Colorado Springs Independence Center, a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities.

"A lot of people that use the transit system, they're on Social Security, they're on $698 a month," he says. "So a 50-cent raise, it would mean that some people would not be able to go to doctor's visits."

Presenting to Council on Monday, Shonkwiler tried to show a softer side of the plan. He noted that canceling FREX would mean more money for main bus routes that tend to serve "transit-dependent" riders, versus "choice" riders. Shonkwiler also noted that his team believes overhauling paratransit will allow more people to get the service, while costing the city less.

Councilor Angela Dougan was ecstatic to learn that people with disabilities in her far north district might soon have access to rides. And she liked the idea of eliminating FREX, which she deemed too expensive.

Others were more skeptical. Councilor Brandy Williams asked Shonkwiler if he'd ever ridden one of the buses; Shonkwiler refused to answer. Council President Pro Tem Jan Martin noted that Shonkwiler had never consulted the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority, or considered previous plans like the Future of Regional Transit.

Martin, a FREX supporter, tried to draw attention to benefits of FREX, which is popular with riders and considered important to state transit services. It's actually PPRTA that subsidizes FREX's $2 million budget — paying 40 percent of the costs of the service, or about $798,000 a year — but since the city dictates where that PPRTA money is spent, those funds could be deployed to other transit costs. Grants and advertising on buses, bus shelters and benches bring in another $286,000. Fares take care of the rest, roughly 42 percent.

The latter number is considerable, given that the rest of the transit system's fares only cover 10 to 25 percent of their costs.

Shonkwiler, obviously ruffled by Martin's comments, said his plan wasn't meant to address the long-term needs for transit in the community; it was only intended to show how transit could operate within the budget it had.

People like Martin and Krueger, however, are concerned that such an approach will limit the scope of transit in coming years, and as a result, cut short innovation.

"What this shows today," Martin told Council, "is there's some conversations left to be had, and we need to engage the public."


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