Vail Valley Voices: A hard look at transit
Vail, CO Colorado
While the recession has walloped municipal, state and federal budgets – driving them deep into the red – good management, pragmatic public policies and decent reserves built up during better times have kept our local governments from shaking their beggars’ bowls.
To their credit, every one of our local governments has been very aggressive with expense reduction while maintaining a good level of basic services for our full-time residents and tourists.
In a post-recession economy, there will be many tough decisions on what services are important to our community. For nearly two decades, one of those important services has been public transit.
Today in Eagle County, (the Vail Pass to Glenwood Canyon part of the county), we have four transit systems: Vail, Avon, Beaver Creek and ECO Transit. Of these systems, ECO is the only one that charges fares. Since its creation in 1995, ECO Transit has been supported by a 0.5 percent sales tax and paid ridership. Additionally, a portion of that sales tax is used for building bike and walking trails throughout the entire county.
Across the U.S., public-transit systems have been hit hard by the recession with a precipitous decline in tax-based funding sources. Additionally, with the loss of jobs and fewer commuters, fare-box revenue is down. ECO Transit has felt these effects and acted quickly to cut back on services and increase fares to maintain reasonable service levels. Frankly, ECO has done a better job than most, and its deficit gap this year was $233,000.
In keeping with their commitment to balance ECO’s income and expenses, the county and towns have come together to form the Transit Action Group (TAG). This is a group of representatives from all of our towns and the county and includes elected officials, transit managers, planners and financial and legal experts.
The Economic Council staff has taken on the responsibility of facilitating an ongoing series of work sessions for TAG. The goal of the group is to develop a list of specific recommendations that will insure that our countywide bus service remains viable.
How important is a countywide bus system? For every one out of 10 readers of this newspaper, it’s vital.
Now if you’re one of the nine out 10 who doesn’t use any buses for work or personal use, your reaction may be – “what’s the big deal?” Well, it’s a big deal if you consider that thousands of workers take the bus daily to their jobs in Vail and Beaver Creek. That means less traffic on the road, less congestion in the towns and less pressure to build more parking. And many ECO riders don’t own a car or are a one-car family.
These are the same reasons why voters supported the formation and funding of a cross-county bus system in the mid-’90s. Despite a drop in jobs, our economy still needs an effective public-transit service.
And when the economy regains its momentum, the cost and quickness of adding more busses back into the schedule will be a lot less expensive than building new parking structures.
The Transit Action Group clearly recognizes that in these though times, a public bus service needs to operate within its means. If sales tax and ridership drop, services have to be cut back accordingly. Yes, that inevitably will create hardships and inconvenience for some riders, but the group clearly believes that even a more modestly scaled service has important economic value to our community.
That kind of tough-minded thinking requires a hard look at operating efficiencies. Every corner of the ECO budget is being scrubbed. Can fuel be bought more cheaply? Can costs be reduced if the bus fleet is better spread out for overnight parking in Vail, Avon and Gypsum? Are there routes and maintenance services that can be outsourced for less money?
What’s been great about seeing the TAG participants begin to grapple with these issues is that they’ve put aside historical and geographical biases and are keeping an open mind to new solutions.
Beyond the short-term need to more carefully align services to funding, the TAG members are equally interested in a long-term vision that will improve public transportation and develop it as an increasingly attractive alternative to individual cars.
The idea of a cross-county trunk system that is fed by smaller local circulators has strong appeal. Today, both Vail and Avon have local bus systems to do that. In the future, similar solutions for Minturn, Edwards, Eagle and Gypsum could be considered.
They key issue here is letting each community on the spine determine how much local service it wants. Of course, how much service they want will be determined by how much they can afford on an community-by-community basis.
The recession has brought kitchen-table economics to public transportation. That means we need to put aside grand plans for futuristic and massively expensive transit projects and focus on ideas that make our public transit systems economically viable and scalable. The Transit Action Group is doing just that.
Don Cohen, executive director of the Economic Council of Eagle County, can be reached at dcohen@