WINTER PARK/FRASER --Area officials are wondering if the existing bus system in the Fraser Valley could be improved, perhaps even expanded.
Discussion about this topic has been taking place for years, but especially resurfaced when Winter Park Resort, which contributes the lion's share of funding to the system, cut back on routes two years ago, potentially affecting guest transportation in the Fraser Valley.
Homeowners Associations in the Meadow Ridge area started contributing funds to the transit program to accommodate visitors and workers renting properties during the ski season, but the subject remains at the forefront: How can this bus system become even more sustainable? How can it improve?
"When you start looking at this, there are so many directions and variables you can go," said Mike Fudge of First Transit, the company that supplies buses and handles routes in the present system. Retired school buses and old city buses rotating in and out of circulation now range from 13 to 18 years old, according to Fudge. And there is no bus facility in which to store buses overnight.
The issue is complex with the need to assess what ridership would be (would the system expand beyond Winter Park and Fraser? Are there mostly visitors or locals using it?); what the cost per rider would be; whether brand new buses, storage and wash facilities are in order; and how all that would be paid for (taxing district? Non-taxing district? Leveraging sales taxes?).
A community matter
The transit system deserves attention, according to Winter Park Resort President and CEO Gary DeFrange. It's truly a reflection of a community, he said. It's an economic matter as well as an environmental one. A good transit system takes cars off the road, promotes cleaner air and less fuel waste; it saves bus users money.
And "for a community to really be successful," he said, "these are the things to have for guests and employees: good schools, good health care and good transportation. The better those things are, the better opportunity to attract not only employees and guests, but companies that may want to move to the community."
The resort, DeFrange said, ultimately would like to see the community's transit system have newer ADA-compliant buses, and in the least, a new facility to house them.
According to Fudge, upgrading to new and modern Gillig transit busses can run about $350,000 each. A used one can be acquired and refurbished for about half that amount, and new but smaller buses can run about $170,000 each. To replace every bus for the current system would require about 30 busses.
Presently, Winter Park pays about $1 million a year for the five-month daytime bus system that does well to shuttle vacationers and residents. Winter Park budgeted $400,000 this year based on 7.5 percent of sales tax. To fund a large share of the evening shuttle, Fraser put in $50,000, Grand County tossed in $15,000 and properties in the Meadow Ridge area also contributed.
Meanwhile, Federal Transit Administration money is being distributed through the Colorado Department of Transportation to area transit programs, but Grand County is missing out on those funds for not having a bus system that caters to the public year-round.
The money is not available to seasonal agencies, according to Ann Rajewski, co-executive director of Colorado Association of Transit Agencies. Nearly $15 million in RTA and state-generated FASTER funds has been awarded to Colorado's rural agencies for 2013, with Steamboat Springs Transit receiving $1.5 million for operations, administration and the replacement of four buses out of $2.5 million it asked for.
Other Grand County neighbors, Breckenridge and Summit County, are receiving more than $1.1 million for bus systems to replace buses and for operations expenses. Eagle County, including the town of Avon, is getting more than $2.2 million.
Again, the transit system in the Fraser Valley as it exists today would have a lower chance of getting a piece of that pie because it would be competing against full-time public transit agencies, Rajewski said.
However, a 2011 analysis of transit systems in Colorado, excluding RTD-Denver, showed that on average, about 43 percent of funding comes from local support by way of direct sales tax, a taxing district, or general fund support; another 13 percent comes from rider fares; about 27 percent from federal support; about 3 percent from state support, 7 percent from contracts and the rest from other sources.
A good start
Rajewski pointed out that the federal piece helps, but the bulk of the funding comes from the community, and Grand County has a great start in terms of public and private buy-in.
"The nice thing about that sort of setup," she said, "is it's a viable mix of private-public partnerships."
With shrinking federal transit support expected in the coming years, it's positive to already have had a foundation established that is not dependent on federal funding.
"I think what you have going for you is you have communities that have already bought into transit - that's huge," she said.
"The town of Winter Park and Winter Park Resort have shown a commitment to transit for a really long time," said Town of Winter Park Manager Drew Nelson. "That shows there's a commitment to it. If it was low enough on the ladder of importance, it easily could have been something discarded during the economic downturn. It is of importance to the community."
But Nelson recognizes the difficulty in advancing the system unless it's funded at a higher level.
"We're not sure where that would come from," he said.
According to Grand County Commissioner James Newberry, talks of late have focussed on hiring a consultant to analyze the idea of improving the system, even expanding it to interested communities in Grand County. A consultant could vet funding mechanisms, among other tasks.
The Town of Granby has had discussions about implementing a bus system using its recreation department vehicles that could serve riders in the Granby area, specifically a twice to four-times per-day route that would stop at Ski Granby Ranch, City Market and to the downtown of Granby. Town Manager Wally Baird said he would like to see a non-taxing district explored that would include the existing bus system and Granby, and any other town that would like service, to allow tapping into federal transit money. Granby, he said, would consider funding a Granby-based system out of its general fund and possibly with help from Granby Ranch, which he said has shown interest in the past.
According to Newberry, towns might have the ability to opt into service when they deem it appropriate by helping to support a transit agency - if it comes to that. But as for the next move, the key players need to meet and agree about where the conversation goes next.
And no better time than the present. As Fudge pointed out, gas prices are not getting any cheaper and people in Grand County may becoming more and more interested in an alternative way to get from A to B.