The Mayor's Counsel meeting last week included only four City Councilors, but the meeting room at the Police Operations Center was nevertheless packed. Many had come to see transportation planning manager Craig Blewitt's presentation on various study recommendations for the bus system, and changes the city is planning for the next year.
For the bus riders who came to listen — but weren't allowed to speak — the news was mixed. They could expect the city to make some improvements, like adding evening bus service, and to consider further system expansion or other changes in mid-2013, if funding from grants and the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority exceed expectations. But Blewitt said overall, his main goal is to maintain the current system.
"We don't want to add services that we're going to have to cut," Blewitt told the crowd.
Mayor Steve Bach went a step further. Having said for a while that he believes the city is too sprawling, and its revenues too small, to support a full bus system, he suggested that shrinking transit's footprint may be a future solution.
"I'm asking a question, I'm not trying to express a conclusion: Should transit be some subset of the city, ultimately?" the mayor asked Councilors. "Say in a decade, if you want transit, 10 years from now, you need to move within a 'transit zone,' except if you're disabled or ill."
That humbling vision aside, bus riders — most of whom are "transit-dependent" due to age, disability, or poverty — have been scoring some victories lately. In March 2011, the city restored limited bus and paratransit service on Saturday, and in 2013 the city will bring back evening bus service on weekdays — pushing the shutdown from 6:45 p.m. to 9:45 p.m. (New schedules will be posted at springsgov.com.)
There are a few other positive changes on the way. Regular bus riders will see more convenient and cost-effective multi-pass and all-day tickets, as well as ticket vending machines and fareboxes for the digital age, and online bus-ticket purchasing. Blewitt says the city is working on installing real-time digital bus schedules at the downtown bus terminal, and at one other large terminal, so that travelers will know if a bus is running late. A phone system will relay the same information.
Paratransit riders, who saw a fare increase of 50 cents per ride this month, will be given a new option in 2013 — to use a handicapped-accessible taxi instead of the city's paratransit vans, at no additional cost. The city says a paratransit ride costs an average of $22, so the taxis could save money.
Seniors and disabled riders who use city-subsidized nonprofit transit services, like rides in Silver Key or Amblicab vans, will also notice an update. A new coordinated dispatch center will allow riders to access close-by rides, saving time and money.
Which brings us back to the "mixed-bag" category: The city is working on a new, yet-to-be-defined, "competitive" system for paying those nonprofit service providers, which could make better use of the city's $393,000 subsidy, but might hurt nonprofits' bottom line. Silver Key CEO Pat Ellis says she hopes the new system won't impact $138,800 in city funding to her organization, which helps it provide 50,000 free rides to seniors every year.
"I don't know that our clients are really aware at this point that this could impact them," she says.