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Group seeks solutions to regional transit issues

By: DEBBIE KELLEY
December 3, 2010
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Should the Pikes Peak region have a separate agency dedicated to public transit? Should taxes be raised to help pay for city and regional bus service? Should bus fares increase? Should street cars be resurrected?

A 29-member group of government, industry and community representatives hashed over these and other issues at a meeting Friday, as part of a nine-month and nearly half a million dollar study called The Future of Regional Transit.

The working group was established in June to examine alternatives for funding and governance of regional public transportation and make recommendations to Colorado Springs City Council.

Regional public transit is funded by several sources, including federal grants, rider fees, the city’s general fund and 10 percent of a 2004 voter-approved one-cent sales and use tax.

Mountain Metropolitan Transit, a division of the city’s public works department, is the sole provider of fixed-route bus service and operates routes within the city of Colorado Springs, Fountain, Manitou Springs and parts of El Paso County. It also offers commuter bus service between Colorado Springs and Denver, and to communities along west U.S. Highway 24.

Although residents of unincorporated El Paso County, Manitou Springs and Green Mountain Falls pay the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority tax, they have no involvement in decision making because the city of Colorado Springs administers the system.

The system, which in 2008 was identified by another community study group as having “critical gaps” in service, has sunk lower with the poor economy.

This year’s transit budget is $15.6 million, of which about $7 million comes from local funding, according to Scott Baker, senior consulting manager with Aecom, an Arlington, Va.-based consulting group hired to work on the project. Rider fares will contribute about $3.2 million.

Budget shortfalls decreased city funding from $11.9 million in 2008 to this year’s $2.6 million.

That has resulted in the city’s bus service being cut nearly in half, including eliminating local weekend, early morning and evening bus service and reducing some routes.

The anemic service presents problems for riders, said Susanne Whited, a steering committee member who uses a wheelchair.

“I have a daughter in high school and I can only go to day events. Otherwise, I can’t get home because the last bus pulls out of downtown at 6:15 p.m. I can’t go shopping on weekends or do anything at night,” she said.

Local fares are higher than many comparable cities, Whited said. Austin, Texas, for example, charges $20 for a monthly bus pass, she said. The local fee: $67 a month.

The group discussed whether forming an independent organization to address public transit or folding it into another government entity, such as the county, would be feasible. Members debated whether asking voters to raise sales tax, property tax, lodging tax or or motor vehicle fees would work.

“What we really need is an interconnected, intermodal system that moves people efficiently and effectively,” said Manitou Springs Mayor Marc Snyder, who chairs the steering committee.

Any alternatives likely will require a ballot proposal, Baker told the group. The committee will give its recommendations and a plan of action to Colorado Springs City Council in the spring, Snyder said.

Eighty percent of the $464,000 study is being funded by a grant from the Federal Transit Administration. The city is kicking in the remaining 20 percent.

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