Demand for public transit is growing in Southwest Colorado, but state funding to support it needs improvement, according to local agencies and a January report by the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project.
Colorado was ranked 29th nationwide for per capita spending on transit services, according to the report, spending just $2.61 per person in 2014 – less than New Mexico, Wyoming and North Dakota.
Nationwide, states paid $53.90 per person for public transit services such as buses, trains, bike lanes, sidewalks and trails.
Public transit can reduce vehicle use and reduce road maintenance and expansion costs, but state subsidies to support public transit fall short in Colorado, the report says.
Nationwide, states provide 26 percent of operating costs and 12 percent of capital costs for public transit.
But Colorado provided zero operating funding and only 1 percent of transit capital, according to a 2015 Colorado Department of Transportation plan. Since 2015, spending in operating costs has gone up slightly, but remains at less than 1 percent.
“Compared with the other states, the level of state support for public transit in Colorado is one of the lowest in the country,” states a January policy brief by the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project (SWEEP). “(States) are crucial partners for implementing good public transport, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, in addition to highways.”
The report points to several studies that show the public transit funding gap in Colorado is $500 million per year, including $107 million per year for rural transit funding that includes providing access to medical care.
In the past two years, state lawmakers have introduced several pieces of legislation to increase transportation funding, but none were approved, and they focused on revenues to maintain and expand highways. Proposals that got the most attention included $3.5 billion in bonds and raising the Colorado sales tax by $670 million per year, but neither provided significant funding for transit, walking or biking.
Lawmakers are again attempting to draft a transportation bill under the leadership of House Speaker Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, and Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Cañon City.
In an effort to ensure that the potential bill boosts transit funding and that rural areas don’t get left behind, the Colorado Public Interest Group is touring rural counties to encourage local governments to speak up.
“A transit funding bill is being looked into, and rural counties need to be heard,” said Colleen McLoughlin, campaign organizer for CoPIRG. “Let state Senator Don Coram know, let your local county and city governments know about transit needs in your community so you can get a share of new funding.”
Public transit demand growsMontezuma County Public Transportation (MoCo) is seeing an increase in use, said transit manager Mary Holaday. The demand is forcing new policies in order to adjust to demand on a fixed budget.
In 2015, the free bus service had 10,356 riders and ran 103,433 miles, delivering people to jobs, medical appointments and stores. In 2016, there were 14,768 passengers, and mileage jumped to 177,759 miles.
“We had to change how we operate in order to best meet more demand,” Holaday said. “Instead of taking people one or two at a time when they call, we’re setting up specific times for shopping and Durango medical trips.”
Starting March 1, requests for scheduled rides in the county must be made by noon the business day before. Durango medical trips will be offered on the second and fourth weeks of the month and must be scheduled two weeks in advance. MoCo rides to shopping will also be done a scheduled route. (See sidebar.)
“We realize these new rules are quite a change, but we have to adjust. With more funding, we could add routes and pay our drivers a more competitive wage – better than the minimum it is now due to our limited budget,” she said.
The Roadrunner Stage Lines’ daily route between Durango and Grand Junction is also seeing increased ridership, said division manager Matt Nesbitt.
In 2016, ridership was 7,970 riders, up from 5,960 in 2015 and 1,871 in 2014. The bus passes through Mancos, Cortez, Dolores, Telluride, Ridgway and Montrose.
“The word is getting out more, and people are taking advantage of our affordable, reliable regional bus service,” Nesbitt said. “People from Telluride are taking it down to Montrose to shop, cyclists are using it to get to different trails, and we get skiers taking advantage as well.”
The Roadrunner Stage Lines began in 2014 after Greyhound pulled out of the region.
It operates under the umbrella of the Southern Ute Community Action Program and depends on $340,000 per year in state and federal subsidies to operate, in addition to ticket sales.
Bipartisan bill looks promisingWill Toor, SWEEP transportation director, said the bipartisan transportation bill in the Colorado Legislature looks promising. Discussion centers on whether to ask voters to raise taxes in November to bridge the transportation shortfall.
“My sense is that they are settling in on a sales tax over a gas tax, but they have not come to an agreement yet,” Toor said. “Our position is that it must include multimodal funding for public transit that meets the needs of diverse communities across the state, not just one-size-fits-all for major highways.”
One proposal would ask voter approval for a .6 percent sales tax increase, which would generate an estimated $750 million per year for transportation needs.
If approved for the ballot and by voters, Toor said, half the funds would go to CDOT for distribution to city and county applicants, and the other half would go directly to local governments.
“The idea would be that the funding would be flexible depending on what the community’s priorities are,” he said.
Part of the funding would support bus service such as MoCo and Roadrunner, Toor said, as well as construction of the Paths to Mesa Verde trail between Cortez and Mancos.
Increasing the Colorado gas tax is another funding possibility, officials say, though it has not increased since 1992. Under current state law, this funding is limited to highway expenditures and cannot be used for transit. Twenty other states currently use gas taxes to support public transit.
This article was updated on March 8 to correct the amount of the subsidy for the Roadrunner Stage lines route from Durango to Grand Junction to $340,000 per year.