ECO Transit sees numbers rise, makes case for staffing increase
EAGLE — Last year, ridership on ECO Transit buses topped 950,000 and the fleet drivers compiled nearly 83,000 service hours.
The county’s bus fleet has shown steady growth over the past four years — ridership has grown by more than 160,000 people and service has increased by more than 21,000 hours. In 2013, the system expenditures were $6.7 million with $432,000 in capital expenditures. In 2017, the expenditures hit $7.9 million with almost $1.3 million in capital expenditures.
“Public participation is clearly at an all-time high,” said ECO Transit Director Chris Lubbers during a work session with the Eagle County Board of Commissioners this week.
During the session — which was partly a report about 2017 figures and partly preparation for an anticipated staffing increase request — Lubbers noted that ECO anticipates completing a comprehensive transit study in the spring of 2018. As part of that study, ECO riders and county residents have been surveyed about the service. A fare reduction has already been enacted in response to the surveys.
“Before you started it (the survey) I hadn’t heard much discussion either way,” Eagle County Commissioner Jill Ryan said.
But Ryan noted that since ECO started its survey, she has heard from many people about the fare issue.
“People feel if it were cheaper, a family of four from Eagle would use it to take their family skiing. Right now, the cost rivals parking cost,” Ryan said.
Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney said the comment she hears most often is that people want a free bus system such as the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses.
“Of course that service isn’t free,” McQueeney said. She noted that RFTA has a $30 million taxpayer-supported budget compared to ECO Transit’s $9 million budget. “Part of the study will compare things so people really understand what they are getting.”
The study will explore possible expansion options for the ECO bus system as well as various trails projects. But an expansion of services would require additional taxpayer funding, and that may or may not prove palatable.
“Future funding is discussion only at this point,” said Lubbers. “There is a lot that we can do with status quo (existing funding). We can still be an effective transit agency.”
Lubbers noted that ECO anticipates ending 2018 with a $3.7 million fund balance. The county’s finance department has indicated that ECO should carry $3 million in fund balance annually.
“We are operating well within our means, but not at a place where we could look at any large expansions,” Lubbers said.
Lubbers did note there is one pressing need in the ECO operation. While ridership and service hours have increased since 2013, the system’s bus driver corps hasn’t. Since 2013, ECO has operated with 32 year-round and 7.12 seasonal positions.
“Our labor model is in desperate need of an update,” said Lubbers.
To meet base service levels, Lubbers said ECO needs to increase its staffing by the equivalent of 6.9 full-time employees. Additionally, the service needs 10.48 seasonal full-time equivalents, compared to its current 7.13 full-time equivalents.
That’s a significant staffing increase, Lubbers noted, but it doesn’t represent a large budget hit. Because service hours have increased without a commensurate increase in staffing, ECO is paying a lot of premium, overtime hours. By bringing on more drivers, the agency could slash its overtime costs.
Lubbers estimates the total cost associated with the proposed staffing increase would be $16,941. “It’s close to being budget neutral,” he said.
But before the commissioners get a formal proposal, Lubbers said his request will be vetted by county staff to make sure the numbers hold. He noted that ideally, ECO would phase in its hiring by first offering full-time jobs to current seasonal drivers whose jobs will end in April. In November, when service levels pick up again, ECO could increase its ranks for the 2018-19 ski season.
Lubbers anticipates making his formal request within the next month. During this week’s discussion, the staffing increase got informal support from someone in the business. Ralph Trapani — who managed the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Glenwood Canyon project, as well as the Colorado Highway 82 project between Basalt and Aspen, is now a consultant from the Parsons Transportation Group, an agency that is currently doing a study for RFTA. He applauded ECO Transit’s efforts.
“A 10 percent increase in service with no increase in staffing is pretty amazing,” Trapani said.