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Bused Flat

Ballot measure would boost transit for first time in two decades



At the city's main bus terminal on Kiowa Street and Nevada Avenue, commuters have many different opinions about the state of bus service in Colorado Springs.But there's a general consensus on one thing: Springs voters this fall should approve a three-tenths of a cent sales tax to expand and improve bus service throughout the city.

The proposal, which goes to the voters on Nov. 2, would create a new Rural Transportation Authority that would expand bus service inside city limits and run new bus lines to rural communities such as Ellicott, Monument, Fountain and Calhan.

"I see no problem with a tax increase that will allow children to get home earlier and help people get to work," said Cathleen Lanacari, who rides city buses up Highway 115 from the Fort Carson area to jobs on Academy Boulevard.

The commute takes Lanacari an hour and forty-five minutes each way. "That's about four hours a day," she said, noting that more frequent bus service would help.

"They don't run enough after 6:30 p.m.," added Dan Whiteler, who works a day shift at the telemarketing company Future Call on Academy Boulevard. "I'd like to work the night shift, because I could make more money, but they don't have bus service, so I can't."

For Dave Wilson, who works on the Westside, it's morning service that's most needed. "I take a taxi to get to work, because the buses I need don't start running until 6:30 (a.m.)," said Wilson. "I spend about $75 a week on taxi fare."

Middle schoolers Allison Polite and Natalie Vargas, meanwhile, say they want weekend service. "They need buses on Sunday," said Vargas, referring to the current lack of any city bus service on Sundays.

"Yeah, a lot of people need them to go to church," added Polite.

Proponents of the ballot measure say all these complaints will be addressed by the proposed tax, which would be reduced to a 0.2 percent sales tax in 2001 and beyond.

The money raised -- $14 million the first year, and $9 million in following years -- would nearly double the size of the bus system, allowing for new bus routes, more frequent service, as well as buses in the evenings and on Sundays.

"For a city our size to grow at the rate we're growing, we really need better service to the growing parts of the city," Joe Henjum, one of the leading proponents of the measure, told City Council members at a recent public hearing.

"We're not poised for the future," he said.

Currently, the city bus system, run by Springs Transit, receives a city subsidy of $5 million a year. That's the same level of public funding the company received in 1980, Henjum noted.

To ride or not to ride -- the $20 million question

Away from the city's main bus terminal, however, the proposal is far more controversial. "Mass transit is good, I'm all for it," said one Springs resident at a recent hearing on the proposed tax. "But there should be no government intervention. The market should drive mass transit."

Critics of the plan -- generally free-market libertarians -- call the proposal an even bigger subsidy for a bus system that's drastically underused. In other words, why pour more money into a service that currently provides a city of 500,000 with only 3 million rides a year?

Besides burdening consumers and retailers, anti-tax activist Doug Bruce complains the proposal creates a new "layer of government" -- a cry echoed in the anti-government op-ed pages of the Gazette.

The city's daily newspaper has weighed in on the issue with three in-house editorials -- as well as a column by the paper's editorial-page editor Dan Njegomir -- which all decried publicly subsidized mass transit as a well-intentioned flop.

"My point is that I just don't like using mass transportation, and I'd bet most people feel as I do," he wrote in a June 24 column, adding that only a "relative few" actually need to use buses, because they're too old or poor to drive.

The local chairman of the Libertarian Party, John Berntson, carried the anti-mass-transit banner a step further, arguing that the bus service should be disbanded entirely. If that happened, he said, privately run Jitney van services would spring up, charging people for door-to-door service in smaller, more efficient vehicles.

That way, he argued, only people who need transportation would have to pay for it. "We need to trust the free market," concluded Berntson, who could not name any cities the size of Colorado Springs that relied on Jitney services.

From more moderate corners, some feel it's premature to raise taxes for better bus services when the city has still not figured out how to pay for better police and fire coverage.

"It's not a high enough priority," said Councilman Lionel Rivera, noting that the city still must deal with severe staffing shortages at the city's emergency communications center. At the same time, the Council is being asked to adopt a six-minute citywide average response time for emergency calls.

Councilman Ted Eastburn, who, along with Rivera, voted against putting the bus measure on the ballot, also questioned its timing. "I think this needs to happen, but I'm not sure it needs to happen this year," said Eastburn.

Proponents of the measure counter that spinning off bus service to the RTA frees up $4.9 million in city funds normally budgeted for transit next year. That money would go directly to benefit public safety and capital improvements, said City Manager Jim Mullen.

In promoting the measure, Peak Mobility 21, the group backing the ballot question, has amassed a broad coalition -- from local environmental groups to colleges, major employers and students -- who have spoken in favor of the plan at recent public hearings.

Though they concede it's hard to prove, the proponents say an improved bus system would draw even more people to public transit by making bus travel easier to use.

And while critics complain more buses are worse for air pollution than cars -- because during much of the day, the buses are not full -- transit fans say more buses will improve air quality by cutting down on traffic congestion at peak rush hours, when most air pollution is generated.

"These is a new type of worker in town ... what I call the knowledge worker," said Bill Smith, director of communications for Hewlett-Packard and chairman of a group of businesses trying to reduce traffic on the Garden of the Gods corridor.

"In our case, it's people who come here from other parts of the country -- from the East and West coasts -- where public transportation is an expectation. It's the norm.

"There are the kind of people who would jump at the opportunity to leave the driving to someone else," said Smith, who said the commuters could then check voice mail, do paper work or read a book instead of steering and shifting.

"Retention is a big deal for us, especially when we relocate people. Knowledge workers are a lot more mobile than other workers, and if they're weighing quality of life, it's a lot easier to go somewhere else."

Further down the economic ladder, bus service would help low-wage workers -- many of whom don't have cars -- get to minimum-wage jobs in restaurants, hotels and other parts of the service sector.

"So this, in a way, would reduce some public costs which taxpayers are paying through [Supplemental Security Income and Social Security Disability Insurance]," said Joe Vaccaro, the employment services coordinator for Goodwill Industries.

Vaccaro said all of his 70 developmentally disabled clients rely on the bus to get to work and that very often they must turn down jobs they can't get to.

"Just today, I had a client get a job at Fort Carson, but he has to work Saturday, and buses don't get there on Saturday," he added. "So that day, all his earnings will pay for cab fare to work -- he'll be working for the taxi company that day."

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