Friday, June 24, 2005

Regional transit authority discussed

Cities, county not sure of how, when it would operate

Express Staff Writer

To summarize the Blaine County Transportation Committee meeting Wednesday, June 22, members found a large problem in search of a bigger solution.

One by one, the dozen representatives from Wood River Valley cities and transit operations agreed a regional transit authority operating a schedule of 30-minute bus and van service up and down the area is a must.

But that's when the largest hurdle developed: how to finance an ambitious transportation system?

The monthly meeting, chaired by Blaine County Commission Chairwoman Sarah Michael, adjourned after nearly two hours when members agreed to return for the July 20 meeting at 8 a.m. in Ketchum City Hall with specific proposals on organizing a regional transit operation and ways to finance it.

The meeting's tone was set by Wally Huffman, Sun Valley Co., general manager, who said, "we don't have the first clue what the problem is" on the extent of who needs the service most, commuters, shoppers, school students etc.

What the group knows, Huffman said, is that "the inventory of (bus) equipment is not good, maintenance facilities are full."

A study must be conducted on what the region needs, Huffman said.

To which Hailey City Councilwoman Carol Brown asked, "The first step is, do we need to form a regional transit authority?"

She added that reducing vehicular traffic on state Highway 75 should be the goal, and one inexpensive incentive to drivers would be comparing costs of driving a personal auto and riding the existing Peak Bus.

Brown estimates her car costs $3,000 per year to operate, whereas cost of fares on the Peak Bus could be half at $1,500 annually.

The manager of the Peak Bus service, Jim Finch, said there's good news on that front—the number of riders is increasing, with 34 percent of the costs now covered by rider fares. The number of riders was up 5 percent for May, he said.

The committee was handed a list of available buses and vans in the valley—10 from KART (Ketchum Area Rapid Transit), two buses from Peak Bus, and nine buses and three vans from Sun Valley Co.

Michael produced the most stunning statistics—that as much as 25 percent to 30 percent of the traffic on Highway 75 in the Wood River Valley involves commutes from outside Blaine County.

Huffman, whose resort company operates round-trip daily bus service to Twin Falls and between for its commuter workers, characterized much of this traffic as employees of landscaping and construction firms who need to be enlisted to help pay some of the costs of bus services.

Costs and how to pay for them became the central focus of discussion after Terry Crawford, manager of KART, said buses could be acquired relatively cheaply. Operating costs for drivers and maintenance are the problems, he said.

When Sun Valley City Administrator Virginia Egger asked whether school buses could be used in down time for public transit to ease costs, Crawford said no because of specific legal prohibitions.

What about street parking fees as a source of operating funds for buses?

Ketchum City Council President Randy Hall said that "every six to eight months the issue raises its ugly head," and Ketchum is "wrestling with the concept." He said an initial program, if approved, might be in a single corridor in the city.

Convincing merchants that "a meter in front of their store will help" turn over potential buyer traffic is a major goal.

However, Ketchum City Administrator Ron LaBlanc seemed to put a damper on any early implementation of parking meters.

"We don't even have sidewalks," he said, stirring a few chuckles. Noting that on some streets the parking spots are a crazy quilt of parallel and angled slots, LeBlanc said, "We've got to get organized parking before we can charge for parking."

Then came a flurry of ideas for revenue services.

Several members suggested using some local option tax funds. Egger proposed the cities and county consider using a portion of the increased property tax revenues that come with growth.

LeBlanc said that one of the best sources would be a real estate transfer tax, which is vehemently opposed by Idaho real estate groups and when proposed is always defeated in the state Legislature.

Finch also suggested that a frequent commuter schedule might attract many students now using school buses, and which might prompt the Blaine County School District to divert some of its bus operating expenses—now estimated at $840,000 per year—to a transit authority.

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