Friday, August 19, 2011

Mountain Rides foresees federal funding cut

Ridership continues to grow on valley bus system


By TERRY SMITH
Express Staff Writer

A busload of commuters awaits a trip south from Ketchum on the Mountain Rides Transportation Authority Valley Route. While bus ridership continues to grow, Mountain Rides faces the possibility of major cuts in federal funding. Photo by David N. Seelig

Mountain Rides Transportation Authority is bracing for an expected cut in federal funding, even as ridership on the organization's bus fleet continues to rise.

Mountain Rides Executive Director Jason Miller said Thursday that he's been advised by the Idaho Transportation Department, which distributes federal dollars for mass transit, that the cut in federal funding may be as high as 30 percent in the near future. The cautionary advise comes as ITD and other transportation agencies throughout the United States await the outcome of a new transportation bill being written by the U.S. Congress.

"That's kind of a worse case," Miller said. "What we're looking at going forward is we're not going to be in a growth mode, we're going to be in a protect mode."

As Miller prepares the Mountain Rides budget for Fiscal Year 2012, which starts in October, he's already trimmed about 20 percent from the expected federal revenues. Instead of $750,000 received for Fiscal Year 2011, Miller is now anticipating just over $600,000 from federal sources.

"That's just a guess, really," Miller said. "That 20 percent is in there just as a cushion to help us not get caught. It might be more, it might be less."

Overall, Miller's tentative operating budget for Fiscal Year 2012 is 13 percent lower than in Fiscal Year 2011. Instead of $2,494,000 budgeted this year for operations, Miller is currently looking at $2,168,660 for the coming year.

On the bright side, Miller said the organization has no debt, its equipment is in good condition, is still receiving strong support from its local funding partners and ridership is expected to be 15 percent higher this year than last year.

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Especially strong is the Valley Route, which provides paid fare bus service between the south and north valley. With 16,013 rides in July of this year, the Valley Route experienced a 32 percent increase over the 12,134 rides in July of last year.

Mountain Rides also provides free around town service in Hailey, and three free routes in the Ketchum-Sun Valley area. During ski season, the number of routes in the Ketchum-Sun Valley area doubles to six. Mountain Rides also provides commuter van service from the Magic Valley and has pedestrian and bicycle programs to promote alternative transportation modes to the automobile.

Miller said a cut in services may become a reality if funding declines as expected.

There are some other options, he said, such as increasing fares, charging for routes that are now free, increasing the local option tax that helps fund local government contributions to Mountain Rides, or even implementing a new local option tax for mass transit. That option would require state legislation.

"We're saying we'll continue to survive," Miller said. "I think the big concern is what does FY13 look like and what does FY14 look like."

Mountain Rides Board Chairman Peter Everett pointed that Mountain Rides is not alone in its struggle for funding.

"Every transit authority in the country is in big trouble financially," he said.

According to the American Public Transportation Authority, about 80 percent of the public transit systems in the United States were forced to raise fares or decrease service in 2010.

Everett said the United States may have to look at new options for funding mass transit, such as charging a tax on miles driven rather than on gallons of fuel sold.

Terry Smith: tsmith@mtexpress.com




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