The bus stops here 

City Council, hearing those affected the most, decides not to cut public transit routes or hours

click to enlarge Regular bus rider Mark Miedl uses the downtown shuttle to go to work. He could have been  among those most directly affected if the city had chosen one of three options to cut routes.
  • Regular bus rider Mark Miedl uses the downtown shuttle to go to work. He could have been among those most directly affected if the city had chosen one of three options to cut routes.

Alysa Webb squeezed the leash of her seeing-eye dog and offered the city's leaders a sheepish smile. Webb is nobody of great political importance, just a middle-aged woman whose soft form speaks of motherhood, and her messy ponytail of practicality.

She was here to plead.

She spoke about how buses get her to work. She said they get her and her 22-month-old son to doctor's appointments.

"Get in touch with yourself and see your own heart," she said softly. "Find out what your heart says about what's a priority in this community."

The members of the Colorado Springs City Council, behind their long desk, sat like bobblehead dolls. Margaret Radford smiled. Jan Martin frowned deeply. Randy Purvis glanced at the wall.

Webb, after all, was just one of scores of people at this Oct. 25 public meeting to beg councilors not to cut 14,000 hours of bus service about 12 percent of the city's total in 2008.

It's budget season, and with sales-tax revenues dipping and bus expenses up, Council had turned its ax to public transit.

This, three years after taxpayers approved formation of the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority (PPRTA) to pay for expanded bus service. At that time, many City Council members saw a dream: shiny new buses packed with suits and laptops, less traffic, less pollution and a better image.

But when bus service cuts were proposed this fall, the dream didn't show up to complain at public meetings. Instead, City Council came face-to-face with the desperate reality that's always defined the bus system in this city. People like Webb. Lots of people like Webb. (It is projected that city buses will provide more than 3 million rides in 2007.)

The two public meetings Council held on the budget were packed with folks who want more buses, not fewer. A few spoke about the environmental importance of public transit, and what it could do to the city's future. But most simply spoke of needing a way to get around. They were disabled, elderly or poor.

Mountain Metropolitan Transit was short about $1.3 million in 2008. Trimming 14,000 hours of service would have saved more than $700,000.

On Oct. 31, Council found a way to save the service, a budgetary loophole that will work, at least for this year. But Council has come close to cutting bus service before, and with budgets tight and costs high, it's likely the same subject will come up in talks about the 2009 budget.

The question seems to be: How much is the city willing to invest in workable public transporation?

Here are a few hints.

Purvis, Scott Hente and Mayor Lionel Rivera didn't rush to save bus hours. Instead, even after the decision to avoid service cuts, they said underused routes shouldn't be subsidized by taxpayer dollars, adding there were more worthy causes for the city's limited funds.

Initially, Radford, Tom Gallagher and Martin said they were struggling to balance the need for bus service with the need to fund other priorities. That wasn't easy, when the proposed budget callled for cutting out police helicopters and draining the lifeblood from community-oriented services like Drive Smart, the police department's traffic-safety program. But each of the three came to support the plan to save the bus hours.

The councilmembers who seemed most passionate about keeping bus service intact Jerry Heimlicher, Darryl Glenn and Vice Mayor Larry Small didn't talk very much at first about helping people such as Webb. Instead, they said Colorado Springs, which was found to have the most traffic problems of any city its size in a 2007 Texas Transportation Institute report, needs to provide alternatives to driving.

It's a philosophy of "if you build it, they will come," "they" being suits with laptops happily cruising some light rail while their demoted SUVs sit in their driveways.

What a dream.

Welcome to the new system

Russell Snyder curls into the corner of the green metal bench, baggy clothes bunching around his thin, 26-year-old frame. He stares mostly at the sidewalk, occasionally glancing up to watch the cars of rush hour bullet past him.

He fidgets. Finally, he borrows a cell phone and dials.

"I'm going to be late," he says, his voice whisper-soft.

Snyder caught his first bus earlier this morning. It dropped him off here, under the Interstate 25 bridge on Tejon Street, just in time to miss his connecting bus. Now he'll wait for his bus for another 30 minutes, and arrive tardy for his roofing job.

For the past six months, ever since he lost his driver's license to a DUI, Snyder has relied on public transportation.

"I wake up at 5:30 in the morning; I catch the bus at 6:15, and I get to work at 9:30," he says.

Not too many people would trade in their cars for that kind of service. Yet Snyder seems forgiving of the system.

"I don't think it's too bad," he says.

In 2004, the city had a study done on "Public Transit Economic Benefits." It found the system at that time provided $3.1 million in net economic benefit, providing transit jobs and giving riders the ability to get to workplaces around the city. But Council and the city transit department constantly point out that buses could be much more beneficial if more people used them.

Three years ago, voters in El Paso County, Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs and Green Mountain Falls approved a one-percent tax for the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority. The money was mostly for roads and bridges, but 10 percent of it was reserved for expanding the bus system. In 2005, the system's budget was much bigger than it had ever been. Things were changing.

If you don't ride the city bus, the improvements you noticed were likely aesthetic. An advertising campaign. Bus drivers sporting new uniforms. Shiny, colorful new buses with the word "Metro" emblazoned on their sides.

Those who need the buses got a few new routes, and a substantial increase in hours, including some greatly appreciated hours on the weekends.

The bus system was reorganized in a way that the city says is more logical and efficient, and route names were changed.

But it wasn't as if we suddenly got a New York subway system. In fact, a lot of people say they hardly noticed the changes.

"It was all a facade," says Jeanna Lanucha, a bus driver and union leader. "The RTA hasn't helped the system; it's gone downhill."

click to enlarge Geoff Ames bikes, but supports all forms of alternative transportation. - BRIENNE BOORTZ
  • Brienne Boortz
  • Geoff Ames bikes, but supports all forms of alternative transportation.

The true victims

When the city leaders were considering axing routes, they faced a choice: Whom should they hurt?

Should they hurt Nicole Sittler, who sits patiently on a Saturday morning in the downtown bus terminal? Should they hurt her big-eyed, 2-year-old daughter and quiet 9-year-old son who wait with her?

Should they hurt Mark Miedl, who rides the downtown shuttle to get to work, and will proudly tell you that he has "a home" if you look too long at his worn blue jacket?

Should they hurt people like Mary Esteve, a blind retiree with a seeing-eye dog who is dependent on public transportation?

None of these riders owns a car. The bus gets them everywhere. They wait in the heated room at the downtown transfer station, or on cold metal benches throughout the city. They catch old, stale-smelling buses, or they catch the pretty new ones. When the bus is crowded, they may stand, or cram into plastic seats.

It's not always pleasant, but that's life for Sittler, Miedl, Esteve and many more. And the route-cutting Council considered last week would have made lives like theirs that much harder.

"It was difficult to find a combination of routes that was not impacting somebody in a significant way," public works director Ron Mitchell told Council during budget discussions.

Option A would have cut less-used and specialty routes, including some that serve military bases. Option C would have cut many of the same routes, but saved buses that run to military bases, instead reducing weekend hours.

Option B would have cut a couple express routes and the downtown shuttle.

Mitchell said he didn't have any desire to cut the downtown shuttle. He called it "a successful program" that's good for the downtown economy. Plus, he said, it's been subsidized by downtown businesses, which strongly support keeping it.

So why did he offer to cut it? To spare paratransit.

Paratransit (whose short "Metro Mobility" buses you'll see around town) works similarly to a taxi, and is projected to provide more than 150,000 rides in 2007 to elderly and disabled people who have trouble using the bus system. But the service is only available near bus routes. So in most cases, if you cut a bus route, you cut paratransit service.

If Council had cut routes, it would have had to choose. Options A and C would have reduced paratransit service for people like Esteve. Option C would have also cut some of the weekend hours that Sittler and her kids use. Option B would have meant that Miedl had no way to get to work.

Geoff Ames, acting president of the Pikes Peak Chapter of the Colorado Mobility Coalition, which advocates for public and alternative transportation, was one of the voices advocating for no cuts.

"We're going for Option D: none of the above," he said before the decision.

Ames thinks the downtown shuttle has a lot of potential. And some of the other routes that were threatened are so new, he says, that people haven't had a chance to discover them.

Golden child

For the amount of love the transit department lavishes on the FrontRange Express (FREX), you'd think its fleet of fancy, WiFi-equipped buses laid golden eggs.

Of course, they don't. But FREX has managed to attract what no other bus around here has: those suits and laptops. FREX, which runs from Colorado Springs to Denver, has captured what government likes to call "the choice rider" the person with a car who would rather ride the bus.

"FREX has been a very successful program," public works director Mitchell says.

The route has been around for a few years. It was originally funded mostly with a federal grant. But that grant ran out, and now the PPRTA, state and local governments are paying for FREX, which recently got a fleet of new buses. Denver isn't contributing a red cent.

The Springs' transit department is talking with Denver to see if it's willing to contribute to the cause. Until then, southern Colorado's tax dollars will keep it going. All things considered, the city's transit department estimates that FREX costs around $1 million annually, with more than half the money coming from the PPRTA.

When the city considered axing routes, FREX's neck was never on the line. The transit department defends that. It says FREX, and its riders, are the future of public transportation.

Besides, city contract manager Tim McKinney says, PPRTA money used for FREX and other routes was never intended to subsidize services that the city pays for through its general fund. It's a separate pool of money.

"We can't simply have the RTA fund service that the city can no longer afford to fund," he says.

And FREX has plenty of riders.

Manitou Springs Mayor Mark Morland rides FREX a few times a week to classes at University of Colorado at Denver. Morland says he likes the service and wants to see it continue. At the same time, he says when the city considers cutting bus service, it probably ought to look at all routes not just the ones the less-advantaged use.

"That's a tough dilemma," he says. "I think everything has to be on the table. At the same time, I would hope that FREX is not completely eliminated."

Transit's favorite son doesn't appear threatened. But that would change if City Councilor Heimlicher had his way. He says people paid for the PPRTA to get bus service in their area, not to ship off workers and tax dollars to Denver.

"I'd rather see us exhaust all the funds in this town," he says. "If we're going to run a system like that, you put the fares in place that break even."

Heimlicher is also upset that local taxpayers have continued to fund paratransit services in Fountain (about $200,000 annually), something the city transit department says it is doing temporarily because it doesn't want to cut off services to the needy, or to those who live in the PPRTA-paying county areas outside Fountain. But, Heimlicher notes, Fountain shouldn't be eligible for funding because its voters turned down the PPRTA.

The transit department has other critics. Councilor Gallagher isn't keen on dumping money into FREX, and says he's perturbed that transit wants to spend money on a Woodland Park Express bus. The bus, which could begin service next year, would be mostly funded by a federal grant for the first few years, though local governments and PPRTA would eventually share the cost.

City transit folks say their budget hasn't ballooned due to FREX or the Woodland Park Express. They say the problem this year came from low sales-tax revenues, high fuel costs and about $500,000 in unexpected labor costs through the end of 2008 mostly for an expensive pension and health insurance plan for one group of transit workers.

There's a lot of dispute as to whether the city ought to be responsible for the federally protected, unionized transit workers' benefits, especially since workers are technically employees of a city contractor.

The contractor, for its part, has threatened to back out of its deal with the city instead of paying the extra costs, saying the costs are above what the contract indicated. (FirstGroup PLC recently assumed the responsibility for that contract by acquiring Laidlaw International Inc., which originally had the contract.)

click to enlarge Bus driver Charles Mosley worries about his riders, and his future.
  • Bus driver Charles Mosley worries about his riders, and his future.

The contractor would like workers to switch to more affordable plans, but workers say the plans are inferior. Federally required negotiations have not yielded a resolution. After a lot of legal wrangling, the city filed suit against the Department of Labor, alleging its protections for the city's union transit workers exceed federal requirements.

The city has budgeted $200,000 in 2008 for legal costs.

Driving the bus

The man's face is a champagne bottle, about to pop with giddy anticipation. And the cork is pointing directly at Charles Mosley.

When the men's eyes finally meet, Mosley shakes his head in feigned disapproval. Then his big, easy smile moves in.

Mosley is a bus driver, and this mentally disabled man is a regular passenger.

Bus drivers often have a special relationship with the people they serve, and drivers like Mosley tend to feel a need to protect their passengers. That's why Mosley went to a public meeting to ask Council to not cut bus routes.

Mosley points out that many bus riders struggle to make it to minimum-wage work on time after dropping their kids off at schools and day care. Or they are disabled, or elderly.

"Everybody, including me, will one day not be able to drive," he says. "So I want to see a good transit system."

But, he notes, driving the bus isn't an easy thing. The same passengers who greet him like a family member get cranky if his bus is late. Drunks sometimes cause scenes.

On a bad day, he can't help but think he could make more money hauling dirt. But he continues hauling people.

"I really love my job and I love my passengers," he says.

Mosley knows the city doesn't relish paying for his pension plan or his health insurance. But, he says, he just wants a decent life. He just wants to know he can go to a good doctor if he gets sick, and that he'll have enough money to care for himself when he's too old to drive people around.

Besides, Mosley says, city transit seems to waste a lot of money. It recently installed a GPS system in buses that doesn't work.

Another driver, Timothy LaFond, keeps careful track of what he views as the city's wasteful spending. He says the city purchases used buses without adequately assessing their mechanical state. The used buses end up costing a lot in repairs, maintenance and towing. A lot of buses are sold, scrapped or dumped after only a few years in service, he says.

Buses do break down. Randy's Towing hauls about two buses a week for the city, at a cost of $225 an hour. And maintaining the city buses costs millions annually, with the federal government pitching in a large chunk of the money.

The dream

When Vice Mayor Larry Small was young, just after World War II, cars had just become a practical mode of transportation. Everyone had to have one. And then everyone had to have two.

Now, he admits, his family has more than two cars. But he doesn't think that's what young people want anymore.

"We're not building the transit system for my generation," he said. "We're building the transit system for a whole new generation that wants alternatives."

The Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments had a roundtable Oct. 2 to give the public a chance to talk about how to improve transportation in the city. In addition to better-timed traffic signals and better-maintained streets, people said they wanted better public transportation.

Craig Casper, PPACG transportation director, says his organization is piecing together a vision of the city's transportation in 2035. City transit is required to contribute to the plan, and has hired the consulting firm Felsburg, Holt and Ullevig to create its portion of the 2035 vision.

That will cost the city about $40,000, and will hopefully provide a guideline for what projects to fund in the coming years.

So what may the future hold?

How about a Front Range commuter rail? The train could jog between Fort Collins and Colorado Springs, or farther.

"It could run from Cheyenne to Albuquerque," Casper says. "Based on the success of FREX, there is a latent need."

The rail would be easy to use, and considering it could be outfitted with a bullet train, it could be darn fast.

There's also long been talk of a trolley connecting the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs to downtown. And the downtown shuttle is considered a precursor to light rail.

More recently, Casper's heard support for bus rapid transit a sort of crossbreed between light rail and a bus that can run either on a fixed guideway or on regular streets. The great thing about BRT, Casper says, is that it has its own path and right-of-way, and thus avoids congestion and traffic lights.

"You have to make the travel time competitive with a car," he says.

That means BRT would be best-suited for busy streets in high-density areas.

Casper was surprised by how many people had thought deeply about the future of pubic transportation. Some people at the roundtable even talked of renewing blighted areas by building "transit villages" communities that would be a mix of retail, office space and residential, and would lend themselves to walking, biking and using an excellent bus system designed for the neighborhood.

But will any of this really happen? It's certainly possible, Casper says. Yet, like many, Casper is worried that the fact that the city considered cutting bus routes this year is a bad omen for the future.

And, he says, it's unlikely Colorado Springs will ever boast the level of public transportation that exists on the East Coast or in Europe.

"The biggest challenge is going to be the land-use problems that we've got," he says, referring to the city's low-density urban sprawl.

Beyond that, he wonders whether Colorado Springs is really willing to invest in a high-tech system.

click to enlarge Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), which combines benefits of light rail and standard buses, already is operational in some cities and is one idea being presented as a way to improve Colorado Springs public-transit system. - COURTESY PIKES PEAK AREA COUNCIL OF GOVERNMENTS
  • Courtesy Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments
  • Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), which combines benefits of light rail and standard buses, already is operational in some cities and is one idea being presented as a way to improve Colorado Springs public-transit system.

"A lot of the feedback we've gotten from the public is, "That's not how we do it here; this is the West,'" he says.

What now?

Some on Council say they have learned from this experience. Martin and Heimlicher say it was wrong to frighten bus riders with proposed cuts. When Council expressed disdain for the cuts, Interim City Manager Mike Anderson found a relatively painless way to keep the routes. They say he should have done that to begin with.

"All these people had to come and get worried about their livelihood," Heimlicher says, disapprovingly.

Anderson's plan would make minimal cuts to FREX that wouldn't affect service. It would also ask Fountain to pay for its own paratransit, or have that route eliminated or reduced. But most money would come a parking enterprise reserve fund, which Anderson says he just learned he could dip into for bus service.

But while most of Council is congratulating itself on a job well-done, riders will face the possibility of higher fares. And at least one councilor, Margaret Radford, is already nervous about the future. This year's fix won't solve the problem indefinitely, she says, because that parking fund isn't limitless.

"It's a one-time source," she says, "which is worrisome."


Public hearings on bus service

Falcon Police Division Substation, 7850 Goddard St., conference room off main lobby, Thursday, Nov. 1, 10 a.m.
East Library, 5550 N. Union Blvd., East Community meeting room, Thursday, Nov. 1, 4 p.m.
Through the end of Nov. 1, you may also comment by phone at 385-5422, by fax at 385-5419, or by e-mail at servicecuts@springsgov.com.

The unkindest cut
Option A
Eliminate routes with low ridership and specialty routes (Shopper's Special and School Tripper service).
Route E1 Falcon Downtown Express
Route E2 Falcon-Garden of the Gods Express (reduce service hours by half)
Route E4 Voyager Parkway Express
Route 30 and 33 Fort Carson
Route 31 Fountain
Route 40 Shopper's Special
Route 41 Sabin Junior High
Route 42 Cheyenne Mountain Junior High and High School
Route 43 Cheyenne and Pion Elementary

Option B
Eliminate routes and services to lessen impact on the overall system and minimize paratransit impact.
Route 55
Free Downtown Shuttle
Route E1
Falcon Downtown Express
Route E4
Voyager Parkway Express

Option C
Eliminate routes with low ridership and specialty routes (Shopper's Special and School Tripper service). Maintain service to military bases.
Route E1 Falcon Downtown Express
Route E2 Falcon-Garden of the Gods Express (reduce service hours by half)
Route E4 Voyager Parkway Express
Route 40 Shopper's Special
Route 41 Sabin Junior High
Route 42 Cheyenne Mountain Junior High and High School
Route 43 Cheyenne and Pion Elementary
Option C also would reduce Saturday, Sunday and holiday hours.


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