Friday, September 5, 2014

Mountain Rides considers service cuts

Federal funding blunder leads to dollar loss

Express Staff Writer

Passenger Maria Contreras and driver Maira Conlago are shown in a Mountain Rides Transportation Authority van at the bus stop at the Visitor Center in Ketchum. Mountain Rides plans to award a construction contract later this month to convert the location, including all four corners of the intersection of Sun Valley Road and East Avenue, into a transit hub. Photo by Roland Lane

    Mountain Rides Transportation Authority knows it will have to make some bus service cuts in the coming fiscal year, but the extent of those cuts remained unknown on Wednesday because of the uncertainty of federal funding.
    “The budget and the service plan are at the point that we can’t move forward until we have a federal number, and we don’t have that,” Mountain Rides Executive Director Jason Miller said at special meeting Wednesday of the organization’s board of directors. “The short of it is we’re going to get less money, we’re not going to get more.”
    The loss of funding from the Federal Transit Administration could be as low as $20,000 or as high as $140,000, Miller said.
    He explained that the funding uncertainty is the result of a mistake made last spring by the Idaho Transportation Department, which administers FTA money.
    Mountain Rides received $897,000 in federal funding in fiscal year 2014 for operations, and earlier this year anticipated operational funding from FTA at $915,000 for fiscal year 2015, which starts in October.
    “That whole funding process was based on erroneous funding dollars,” Miller said. “They were higher than the [Idaho] Transportation Department had available.”
    He said the mistake was revealed to Mountain Rides in July. He expected to know the extent of the funding loss to Mountain Rides within the next few days.
    “We’ll take whatever the gap is, say $20,000 or $100,000, as a cut into service hours,” Miller said.
    Even without a cut in federal dollars, Mountain Rides is facing a minor cut in bus service hours because the organization’s local funding partners declined to increase contributions by 2 percent for fiscal 2015.
    Miller described contributions from funding partners, which includes local municipalities, Blaine County and Sun Valley Co., as “solid.” However, the amount was not increased to cover increased inflationary expenses for operations.
    Funding partners contributed just over $1 million for operations in fiscal 2014.
    Mountain Rides operations budget for this year was $2,443,868. The organization earlier planned on a fiscal 2015 operations budget of $2,536,500.
    Miller said the service cuts will most likely have to be to the organization’s two most popular routes, the Blue Route, which provides free bus service from Elkhorn Village through Sun Valley and Ketchum to the Warm Springs area, and the Valley Route, which provides paid fare service from the south valley to the Ketchum-Sun Valley area.
    Both are year-around routes and the organization’s most costly. Both provide services that are constant in both peak tourist and slack seasons. The Blue Route, however, has a second bus, Blue Route 2, that is used during peak tourist seasons, providing service from about 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. every half hour.
    A preliminary service plan for fiscal 2015 also shows possible cuts to the Green Route, which serves the west Ketchum area and runs as far south as The Meadows trailer park, and the Red Route, which operates during peak tourist seasons, running from the south Elkhorn area into Ketchum by way of River Run. Both Green and Red routes are free of charge.
    Board member Michael David, who represents the city of Ketchum, questioned whether it would be prudent to cut service on the Blue Route.
    “That’s the reason it’s such a popular route, because you can depend on it,” said Michael, who also was not favorable to cuts in the Valley Route.
    “I’d be concerned about cuts on Valley Route because of all the people who depend on that,” he said.
    Board Chair Susan McBryant, who represents the city of Hailey, said it might be preferable to cut services on the Valley Route during slack so that the hours could be used for service consistency during peak tourist seasons.
    Miller said once federal funding is known, he will prepare several different service options for the board’s review at its next monthly meeting on Sept. 17.
    “This discussion I think has been helpful as to how we approach it,” Miller said.

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