Times are tough when you can't afford a bus ride.
We're not talking about the passengers who board a coach every day. We're talking the agency in charge of the Las Vegas Valley's transportation system, the Regional Transportation Commission.
A little more than a year ago, commissioners, flanked by the likes of Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Shelley Berkley, unveiled the Centennial Hills express route to downtown. Shiny train-looking buses were expected to lure car-obsessed residents who previously never dreamed of riding a bus to work. The strategy seemed to work; 1,600 passengers rode the bus last month.
But unless things change -- and we'll tip-toe around that in a minute -- that brand-new bus route along with several others might be eliminated in the fall. It is possible the commission will not have enough money to keep them running.
"This is the toughest time we've had by far," Jacob Snow, general manager of the transportation commission, said of the recession's effects on the system.
Annual sales tax revenue that supports the transit system has fallen to $130 million, a drop of $60 million since 2006. On top of that, Congress recently passed an appropriations bill that essentially rescinds federal funding for transportation projects. Perhaps most bruising to the coffers are costly changes in Americans with Disability Act requirements that govern the ParaTransit service.
Also on the potential ax list are the routes to Laughlin, Mesquite and Boulder City and local routes 207 and 408. The 207 carries passengers from Alta Drive and Rainbow Boulevard through the downtown Bonneville Transit Center and over to Bonanza Road and Nellis Boulevard. Route 408 is a weekday-only line that provides a business loop in the southwest.
That is the proposal that will go before board members if the transportation agency is forced to cut 100,000 service hours.
A question that instantly pops into mind is this: Why would you terminate a route used to advertise the beginning of a new era?
Snow said while the Centennial express route attracts riders during commuting hours in the morning and evening, its daytime runs have far fewer passengers. Cutting service hours is difficult, and routes that haven't fully bloomed are at risk. Even that might not be enough. The commission could be forced to eliminate 24-hour service.
OK, so what's with all the ifs, coulds and mights?
It is a touchy subject, and I have absolutely no opinion about the company best suited to take the reins of the valley's transit system; but, according to Snow, this all comes down to whether Veolia Transportation or First Transit lands the contract May 19.
"In taking a look at what would have to be cut, it would be 100,000 service hours if for some reason the commission goes with a proposal that is not the one we recommended to them," Snow said.
If you haven't been following along, that would be the current contractor, Veolia, who submitted a bid that over a seven-year period was $50 million higher than its challenger, First Transit. Snow and his administrators recommended First Transit.
"When we submitted the budget, we had to make certain assumptions, so we put it together based on the First Transit bid," Snow said.
It is fair to say that the First Transit recommendation flies in the face of what the rank-and-file employees prefer. Bus drivers and mechanics have made it clear they want Veolia to remain their employer. They made it clear that they believe they will lose their jobs or at the very least have their salaries reduced significantly if First Transit lands the contract. They made it clear that anything remotely positive written about First Transit and its bid is a pile of horse doo-doo.
But Snow isn't in a position to worry about that. His concerns are based solely on the bottom line. That is why outside financial analyst Jeremy Aguero was hired to look at First Transit's bid even after Snow's recommendation and in-house study.
Snow realizes that it is not easy to reduce routes or eliminate them. He also acknowledges that the commission has raised fares twice in recent years and to do that again in order to keep those routes is not plausible.
"There comes a point when you raise fares so high and they flat out won't ride the bus anymore," he said.
Regardless of who the commission chooses, it is likely that the tight financial situation will force it to reduce or shorten some routes. The bad news for drivers pushing for Veolia is that Snow is sticking by his recommendation.
"We've had a good relationship with Veolia for a long time; they've done a fine job for this community."
As Paul Simon once sang: There are 50 ways to leave your lover. In order to continue to offer a fleet of buses to hop on, Snow believes the RTC needs a new plan, Stan.
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