Almost two weeks ago the city of Durango eliminated bus routes to the west side of town, leaving some residents with few options and others with a new alternative.
City officials say the outcry has been minimal so far – possibly because residents have known the cuts were coming for a long time.
Transportation has long been an expense on city coffers. The city has taken many incremental steps to avoid transit cuts, including doubling parking ticket fines, from $12 to $25, on Jan. 15, 2017. But since then, the state of Colorado has changed how it distributes grants, forcing the city to cut $800,000 from the 2018 budget.
The city eliminated bus service to Crestview and U.S. Highway 160 west and ended service to Mercy Regional Medical Center and Three Springs. It contracted with Road Runner, a service of the Southern Ute Community Action Programs, to provide six trips per day to the hospital at no extra cost to Durango Transit pass holders.
Ignacio residents Paulette Wade and her caregiver, Cliff Greany, said they are grateful the city maintained service to Mercy via Road Runner. Wade, who cannot drive because she becomes dizzy, said she needs to make regular visits to the hospital.
“It’s a convenient thing for us,” Greany said of Road Runner.
But for Crestview resident Malik Liggins, the changes mean he is walking a lot more.
Liggins used to rely on public transportation for nearly everything, including picking up food stamps from the La Plata County Department of Health and Human Services in the Tech Center. If similar cuts had happened in Memphis, his hometown, residents would be outraged, he said.
“Here, it’s like ‘You’ll get over it’ – because it’s such a small town,” he said.
Durango Transit cut bus routes after months of public outreach and education. Notices were posted at more than 100 city transit stops, and slide shows were shown on city buses. A few days after the cuts, the city had not fielded many complaints, said Sarah Dodson, assistant director of transportation.
“Honestly, my phone has been a lot quieter than I expected it to be,” she said. “I hope that means that we did a good job of getting the message out.”
The city expects to do a customer-satisfaction survey in June, at which time it will have more concrete feedback about the changes, she said.
As part of the cuts, the city laid off five full-time employees and it is selling four buses from its fleet. It plans to keep 11 buses so the city can rebuild its transit service if and when funding becomes available, Dodson said.
The city also took down signs and shelters at transit stops that will no longer be served. Some shelters will be moved to uncovered stops with service, she said.
Revenue from parking meters, passes and ticket revenue continue to generously subsidize city transit, but it cannot make up for the state cuts.
Thanks to the increase in parking tickets, revenue rose from about $533,000 in 2016 to about $679,000 in 2017, said Wade Moore, parking operations manager. In 2017, the city generated about $1.89 million from parking meters, tickets and prepaid cards and passes. After covering parking department expenses, the city generally spends $800,000 from parking fees on transit, Dodson said.
If the city had not been forced to make cuts, it would have spent $2.27 million on operating the transit system this year, Dodson said. In 2019, the city expects to spend about $1.5 million on transit operations.
Parking ticket revenues may increase to $725,000 this year, in part, because the city started collecting back fines, Moore said. But so far this year, revenue from tickets is down, he said.
“People are now starting to pay at the meter and not getting as many tickets,” he said.
To maintain transit services at pre-existing levels by using parking revenues, the city would have needed to charge $2 per hour at parking meters, $60 a month for parking permits and $50 parking tickets, said Assistant City Manager Amber Blake.
Maintaining the system through bus fares would have meant increasing the price from $1 to $5 per trip.
“If that was the fare, people couldn’t afford to ride the bus,” Blake said.
While there is ongoing concern that fewer people visit downtown because of the increased parking tickets, city data show that is not the case, said Tim Walsworth, executive director of the Business Improvement District.
City surveys showed an average of 48 percent of spaces were available in 2016, before parking tickets were raised, and in 2017, after the change, on Narrow Gauge Avenue, Main Avenue and East Second Avenue. The city surveys the parking spaces that are available from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday when the meters are running, he said.
Decreasing parking ticket fines could bolster the image of downtown as a friendly place to visit, Walsworth said. But the change could increase the budget crunch for transit, which provides an important service for employees and visitors in the downtown, he said.
“When anyone rides the bus, they are not parking, which frees up a spot for one of those customers that we want to come down here and park,” Walsworth said.
To assist those who appear to be struggling with a parking meter, downtown ambassadors who work for the BID carry prepaid parking cards and can put an hour on a meter to help, he said.
The BID sets aside about $700 to help downtown visitors with their meters during peak tourist season, he said.
“We want everyone to come down and feel welcome,” he said.