Eagle County bus system struggles; Vail buses avoid cuts | AspenTimes.com

Eagle County bus system struggles; Vail buses avoid cuts

Edward Stoner
Vail correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

Vail Daily file Vail's buses remains free while Eagle County's system, ECO Transit, is considering fare increases and eliminating some routes

VAIL, Colo. – The ECO Transit bus system is looking to make up for $2 million in lost revenue by the end of the year, and officials are considering fare increases or service cuts.

Meanwhile, another bus system in Eagle County, Vail Transit, hasn’t cut service at all – and it’s free.

Why the disparity?

Vail Mayor Dick Cleveland said the town has made a commitment to maintaining service levels despite the tough economy.

“That’s what the town sells,” Cleveland said. “We don’t produce a product. We provide service. Transportation is one of our core services.”

For this year, Vail plans to use last year’s $3.2 million budget surplus to help maintain services such as the bus system.

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However, the town may not be able to keep providing the same amount of service for much longer. Like the county, Vail has seen decreased sales tax revenue this year. Vail’s lift-ticket tax – which was created to fund the free bus system – has also seen decreases in revenue.

Service cuts will likely be discussed in the coming months as the town creates its budget, Cleveland said. Town officials have considering beginning the reduced spring schedule earlier in the year, he said.

Other cuts have already been made in Vail. Two bus driver positions were recently eliminated to save money, Cleveland said.

ECO Transit has a “completely different mission” as a regional system, Cleveland said. They target service workers, and not guests who view it as an amenity. Cleveland acknowledged that ECO Transit’s financial model, based partly on fares, makes financial shortfalls more evident to riders.

“In many cases, because they are fare-based, the consumer really feels it much more than ours,” he said.

Vail Town Councilman Mark Gordon called the Vail bus system part of the “seamless relationship” between the town and the mountain, Gordon said.

“The bus system is all part of our overall guest experience,” he said.

While the Vail lift tax brought in $3.1 million last year, that didn’t quite cover the cost of the town bus system, which was $3.7 million.

Eighty percent of ECO Transit’s $10 million budget is funded by a dedicated sales tax. With sales tax collections down 20 percent, the bus system is looking to make up around $2 million in lost revenue.

ECO Transit is proposing fare increases for various one-way fares and passes. It has also considered cutting several routes, such as the Vail-Beaver Creek Express Route.

Kaye Ferry, a Vail resident, suggested at a Board of Commissioners meeting last week that ECO Transit transfer money from its open space fund to help fund its deficit. Ferry was part of a group that pushed for the 1995 passage of the half-cent sales tax that funds ECO.

Providing transportation is an essential function of government, while saving open space is a “tangent,” she said.

“There are only a few basic things that government is supposed to do – roads, fire, police – and I believe the next step is to move people in a reasonable way to jobs,” she said.

Ferry even suggested going back to voters for a sales tax increase to help fund ECO.

A representative from Vail Resorts suggested last week that Eagle County dip into its reserve funds rather than raise fares.

Jeff Shroll, chairman of the Eagle County Regional Transportation Authority board, said the board will continue to look at a combination of fare increases and service reductions. It would be “presumptuous” of the board to look for the county to use money such as reserve funds or other funds to fill the financial gap.

“Those kinds of decisions have to come from the commissioners,” Shroll said.

County Commissioner and Eagle County Regional Transportation Authority board member Sara Fisher could not be reached Monday.

estoner@vaildaily.com

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