Durango Transit – Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?
“You can’t get there from here!” These words are NOT a hallmark of a healthy community!
Public transportation has been a vitally important social service for Durango since 1982, connecting residents to jobs (a low cost commuting alternative – and for some, the only option), medical care, school and other important amenities. Beyond meeting these basic needs, public transportation improves quality of life for everyone, making Durango a healthier community by easing traffic congestion, reducing pollution, decreasing dependence on gasoline, and minimizing infrastructure degradation (think roads and bridges).
Federal and state grants fund a significant portion of the Durango Transit (known affectionately by locals as ‘Durango T’) budget. I wrote extensively in a previous blog (Roads and Bridges Mill Levy Ballot Initiative) about the dramatic decline in La Plata County’s tax revenue from the oil and gas industry as oil prices have plummeted. Soon we’ll also be confronting the loss of revenue from grant funding for transportation. County and city staff are feeling the painful pinch as funding sources we’ve relied on for many years dry up.
Award-Winning Durango a Role Model for Rural Communities
City of Durango staff have invested significant time and energy over the past decade to develop the most relevant and efficient public transportation system possible. These efforts were recently recognized on a national level when Durango Transit received the ‘Administrator’s Award for Outstanding Public Transportation Service in Rural Transportation’ from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). This is a high honor, shared with only two other communities in the entire United States this year.
Amber Blake, Director of the Durango’s Department of Transportation and Sustainability, has been a tremendous asset to the Department since 2009, serving as the Multimodal Administrator prior to becoming Director. Through her service on regional and statewide transportation boards, Blake has brought a more global perspective and focused solutions to our local challenges.
So Many Residents Use It, We Can’t Afford to Lose It
In 2015, 17,818 local and regional residents, as well as tourists, used Durango Transit. Durango Transit conducted an on-board passenger survey which revealed that 73% of the riders used Durango Transit services on a daily basis, 76% were transit dependent, and 67% came from low-income households making less than $25,000 per year. 42% of the riders used DT to get to and from work, 21% were students, and 30% used DT for shopping and errands. DT makes 500,000 trips a year on average within the Durango city limits.
DT fares are $1.00 per ride on fixed routes, with some lower fare exceptions for those who qualify, ensuring that affordable or free transportation is available for low-income residents. Fort Lewis College subsidizes annual passes for students, faculty and staff ($30 per pass per year). Special discounts for monthly and annual passes are available for seniors, youth, people with disabilities, low-income individuals, and veterans.
Routes extend from the Iron Horse Inn (northernmost stop) to Mercy Medical Center (southernmost stop), and from the Wildcat Condos on Highway 160 (westernmost stop) to Fort Lewis College and Ball Lane (easternmost stop). Schedules run primarily at 20 to 30 minute intervals. The Durango Transit Center at 250 West 8th Street (next to the Post Office), serves as a citywide and regional hub for coordinating public and private transit services.
Durango Transit Funding Feeling the Pinch
The City of Durango transportation services are funded from four primary sources.
Total revenue for 2016 is projected to be $3,677,753 with 40% of that derived from intergovernmental grants, 33% from city service revenues (parking meter charges comprising the majority), 14% from fines paid for parking tickets, and 13% from assorted miscellaneous revenue sources, including $$250,000 from the Durango Tourism Fund.
Grant funding is expected to drop by 32% ($467,493) in 2017 because grant policies regarding how governmental agencies distribute funds have changed, with the current emphasis on “fair and equitable” distribution of grant funding across the state. Since Durango Transit has already been awarded a disproportionately high percentage of these federal and state funds over the past decade, it is unlikely we’ll receive much more. The exact dollar amount of the decrease for 2018 and beyond won’t be known until early 2017. Some of the grant funding shortfall will be cancelled out by increasing revenue from parking meter fees and parking fines – still, a 10% budget shortfall is anticipated in 2017.
Amber Blake, speaking to City Council at the October 14 budget work session, nailed down a figure. “We need an annual dedicated revenue of approximately $3 million to maintain services at today’s levels.”
That figure represents total revenue from all sources. Given the number of people reliant on Durango Transit, nailing down new sources for an adequate, sustainable transportation budget is a matter of some urgency.
Some might argue that if Durango Transit can’t support itself through fares it’s not a program we can afford to keep. A national discussion is underway on the perceived benefits of privatizing public transportation. (See link below on ‘The End of Public Transit?’ as published in The Atlantic.) There’s also a national discussion on the relationship between transportation, infrastructure, and poverty. Subjectively, the entire community of Durango benefits from an affordable and effective public transportation system. Objectively, as evidenced by the numbers, lower and fixed income community members would be disproportionately impacted by a lack of reliable public transportation. Is public transportation in Durango a program we can afford to lose?
Alternatives and Solutions
Durango’s Department of Transportation and Sustainability is exploring alternative revenue generators and service reductions, along with other influencing factors, in an attempt to close in on a sustainable budget that reduces the reliance on grants.
- On the revenue side, discussions primarily focus on increasing: transit fares, downtown parking permit fees, parking fines, and parking meter rates. Transit impact development fees are under study, as are the possibilities of a sales tax increase or mill levy increase.
- Regarding service reductions, the Department has analyzed routes and calculated dollars saved by eliminating some of the less utilized offerings.
- Additional influencing factors potentially impacting revenues include parking meter additions and eliminations in the downtown area, extended parking meter hours, elimination of parking violations courtesy dismissals, and parking fee requirements for government vehicles.
As of this writing, no forward plan has been solidified and approved. The proposed solution with the most support seems to be raising parking ticket fees to $20 or $25. The additional revenue from this increase in ticket fees would satisfactorily cover – or nearly cover – the anticipated 2017 budget shortfall of approximately $191,000.
A long-term, sustainable solution is yet to be determined.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic – please leave a comment below this blog and thanks in advance!
Here’s to what’s sure to be a lively discussion!
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