Vail-area bus fares could rise to $3 or $4
July 9, 2009
EAGLE COUNTY – Staring down a $2 million hole in its budget, a committee of Eagle County officials and board members from ECO Transit met Wednesday to look at the numbers. The group came away with some unpleasant answers.
The committee next week will ask the full ECO Transit board of directors to approve a package of fare increases and service cutbacks. That means there will be fewer buses running, and passengers will pay more to ride.
Transit system staffers have proposed cutting service back to summer levels through the winter, and leaving the system on its “mud season” schedule from April through November. Cutbacks will also include eliminating service after midnight, and there will probably be fewer buses running to Minturn, Dotsero and other areas.
The proposals will go to transit agency’s full board next week.
People who use the bus service recently urged the Eagle County commissioners to hold the line on fares, arguing that they can’t afford the proposed increases.
Ron Wolfe, Avon’s mayor and a member of the ECO Transit board, said he just doesn’t see how that’s possible.
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“We’ve got to start getting realistic about this,” Wolfe said, adding that businesses that employ workers who use the bus service need to help their workers pay for passes.
Low fares “almost enables businesses to keep paying low wages,” Gypsum Town Manager Jeff Shroll said.
The problem, as with most businesses and public agencies these days, is the economy and falling sales tax revenues. ECO Transit gets about 80 percent of its operating funds from a dedicated .5 percent county sales tax, passed by voters in 1995.
Tax collections for the bus system are expected to drop from $6.2 million last year to just less than $4.8 million for 2009. The 2010 collections are expected to fall even farther, to roughly 2004 levels.
In addition, a combination of cheaper gas and rising unemployment has put a crimp in fare box collections. The system set a record with more than 1.2 million riders last year.
“We aren’t going to see that again for a while,” staff member Kelly Collier said.
Asked if the buses running on the cut-back routes would have enough seats for riders, the answer wasn’t good.
“Right now, we do,” Collier said. “But no matter what we do, it’s going to affect somebody.”
Even if the cutbacks and fare increases fill the revenue hole, the transit agency won’t see that money until next year, leaving a shortfall for the rest of this year.
County Commissioner Sara Fisher said the other commissioners will probably be willing to help ECO through the rest of this year by tapping its own reserve funds.
Looking to the long term, committee members said it’s unlikely voters would approve an increase to ECO’s dedicated sales tax this year or next.
“If we have to raise fares and cut service, it’s the economy,” ECO Transit Director Harry Taylor said. When sales tax collections come back up, the system will probably be able to add service again, he added.