BUS SERVICE HITS FORK IN THE ROAD
With its funding for Grand Valley Transit ending this year, the city of Grand Junction is pushing the bus service to look at oth
Guests who stay at Dave and Michelle Walker’s Palisade Wine Valley Inn and want to take the bus into Grand Junction to spend a night on the town had better come equipped with more than good restaurant recommendations.
Namely, a large dose of patience and an early-bird appetite.
That’s because it takes more than an hour for the bus to wind its way from the stop three doors down from the Walkers’ bed and breakfast to the city. And service shuts down each night at 7:15, long before night owls begin to stir.
Yet for a bus service that can shuttle people to work or play in the morning but not back home in the evening, Grand Valley Transit is as popular as ever. Buses ferried more than 755,000 riders around the Grand Valley last year, a tick below the record in 2006. Managers will open a $4 million administration building and transfer station in south downtown in May and are eyeing a spot near Mesa Mall to build another transfer station to replace the one already at the mall.
But with GVT steering toward its 10th anniversary, its operators and subsidizers are grappling with a host of questions about the future of local mass transit. The most prevalent issues center on where GVT will obtain funding to keep buses running, as well as how — or whether — it will expand service to a more diverse population that is expected to double by 2035.
“We are at a crossroads,” said Todd Hollenbeck, manager of the Mesa County Regional Transportation Planning Office, which oversees GVT’s operations.
A four-year funding agreement between GVT and Mesa County, Grand Junction, Fruita and Palisade expires at the end of this year. Three of the four local governments are prepared to continue using their general funds to pay for bus service for another four years.
“We’re very comfortable with the way the past (four) years have been funded,” Fruita Mayor Ken Henry said.
But city leaders from Grand Junction are dismayed that the arrangement leaves them with no voice in how the transit system operates. Some say a permanent funding source such as a regional transportation authority is needed to generate the dollars likely required to fuel the system in the future. And some are upset that the council’s recommendation four years ago that GVT pursue that permanent funding source has gone unheeded.
“We said this would be the last one we would sign and that they needed to go out and find a new revenue stream,” Grand Junction Mayor Gregg Palmer said. “They’ve not done that.
And now we’re here at the end of (four) years, and it’s exactly as we predicted it. They’re back asking for more money.”
Federal grants make up more than half of GVT’s nearly $3.7 million budget this year. Local governments account for nearly 40 percent. That means less than 9 percent comes from bus fares and advertising revenue.
GVT is asking local governments to sign another four-year pact that, like the current one, contains 4 percent annual increases in funding. By 2013, the county, Grand Junction, Fruita and Palisade would be giving GVT nearly $250,000 more than they do now.
Those who advocate maintaining the funding status quo are skeptical that voters would approve any tax or fee increase that would accompany the creation of a regional transportation authority, particularly in light of the recession.
“At this point, our eyes are not closed to looking at alternatives, but if one of those alternatives is another tax, certainly this council and this mayor would absolutely be opposed,” Henry said.
He pointed out that Grand Junction benefits financially from GVT as much as or more than any local government, because of residents riding in from outlying areas and shopping, eating and otherwise spending money that bulks up the city’s sales-tax revenue.
“I guarantee you you don’t see very many people riding the bus from Grand Junction to Fruita to shop. I don’t mean to throw the gauntlet down on Grand Junction, but they need to recognize that that’s a fact,” he said.
Dave Walker, co-owner of the Wine Valley Inn and Palisade’s mayor, said it’s frustrating to know Grand Junction is pushing for a different approach to subsidizing GVT with just nine months left.
He said it could result in the other governments scrambling to pick up the funding slack left behind.
“The rest of us need to know as soon as possible so we can figure out some alternative form of mass transit in the Grand Valley,” Walker said.
But some Grand Junction City Council members say there are good reasons for at least exploring a different arrangement.
For one, they say, GVT no longer would be subjected to the whims of various elected boards and the fluctuations of municipal and county budgets.
Even though it appears doubtful voters would pass a tax measure anytime soon, Palmer said posing the question is a way to gauge the value they place on bus service.
“If the people aren’t willing to create a quarter-cent sales tax and fund a half-million toward this, why should I take a half-million of their money (from the city’s general fund) and fund toward it?” he said. “It’s all tax money.”
Hollenbeck said the nudge from the city to consider a regional transportation authority simply wasn’t sufficient to push GVT into action.
“Long-term-wise, the ultimate goal is to go to a permanent funding source. I don’t think there’s any question about that. But based on the level of service and where we’re at now, there was no real driving factor to move in that direction,” he said, noting that none of three other funding partners objects to the current agreement.
Council members also are concerned the city is pouring money into the bus system with no jurisdiction over how it’s spent.
In addition to the $420,000 it provided this year, the city donated the one-acre parcel at Fifth
Street and South Avenue, where GVT is building a new headquarters and transfer station.
Yet Palmer claims GVT has shown no willingness to entertain suggestions to create bus pull-out areas, a change that would increase safety for buses and other motorists.
“I personally would like to talk about that. They said no. We’d like them to look at a funding source. They said no. What it comes down to is Grand Junction is a contributor but doesn’t have much of a voice,” Palmer said.
“I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that arrangement.”
City officials say another problem with the current and proposed funding arrangement is it won’t help GVT enhance its limited service.
Other funding partners agree. It’s difficult to add more riders to buses that run only once an hour and not at all on Sundays or at night.
Three-quarters of GVT’s riders live in households earning less than $35,000 annually. Many ride because they have no other transportation option.
“The general frustration seems to be that a lot of money is spent on a very few people that are actually able to take advantage of the system because of the way it is set up,” Walker said. “We think that’s maybe the wrong way to look at it. It just magnifies the issue that it seems to be the transportation method of last resort. If it were designed in a different way, we think that would be better.”
Any significant upgrade in service, however, will require a significant investment.
Local governments have expressed preliminary interest in running buses later in the evening.
Hollenbeck said running until 11:15 p.m. could cost another $500,000 in local funds — more than one-third of the total amount provided — and add potentially 250,000 more riders.
Doubling the frequency of bus runs to every half-hour would require a $4 million upfront investment in more buses and more than $1.3 million in additional operating money, according to Hollenbeck.
That likely would double GVT’s ridership.
It also would require funding that probably only a regional transportation authority could provide, he said.
Whatever funding route the city ultimately settles on, Palmer said local elected officials need to find out how much the community values bus service and how much they’re willing to pay for it.
He said the two most common comments he hears when he informally polls people are “I think the bus system is great” and “I’ve never used it.”
“Until I have a better feel on what the community wants done with their money, I’m not inclined to make a rash decision,” Palmer said.