Push for bus riders runs into plan to cut routes

Our transportation leaders spent a good chunk of last year encouraging us to ditch our personal vehicles and hop on public transit or ride our bikes or, better yet, both.

New Regional Transportation Commission park-and-rides have storage areas for bicycles, and one even has showers. The combination of biking and riding the bus is healthier for commuters and the environment, plus it is a heck of a lot less expensive than fueling up your own vehicle, general manager Jacob Snow said.

Now some commissioners fear their efforts are in jeopardy as the board itself has encountered serious financial problems. Dwindling sales tax revenues, a key source of funding, has shrunk the commission’s budget from $100 million at its peak to roughly $80 million.

The commission is reaching out to the public for input on which bus routes should be eliminated in its desperate effort to meet its budget. There is no doubt that some will go, and board members already have raised questions about the routes on the chopping block.

Alta Drive has been transformed from a boring sea of concrete and asphalt into an attractive arterial highlighted by landscaped sidewalks to encourage biking and walking and shaded bus shelters to draw residents to public transit. The primary route down Alta to Stewart Avenue, along with the Carey Avenue to Smoke Ranch Road, is on the list of routes that could be axed.

Las Vegas City Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian recently cautioned against taking a step backward.

“We’ve been working really hard on connectivity of biking, walking and public transportation, and it so happens that this route goes right in the middle of what we’re doing here,” Tarkanian said during a recent discussion on the issue. “If we’re going to preach connectivity and we’re going to tell people you should do this and do that, that this is better for your health and a more vibrant community … we have to be careful if we’re going to make big changes so we don’t lose what is critical.”

The fixed-routes system is critical to the community. Last year, its 48 routes provided rides for 58 million passengers. As routes are reduced or eliminated, the paratransit system, which serves the severely disabled, must also be cut back.

“The concern we have is we’re in the business of providing public transit and unfortunately, in the last four years, we’ve been in the business of cutting public transit,” Snow said.

The latest round of cuts makes one wonder whether they could have been avoided had the commission settled upon a new bus operator. Instead, the board split votes between Veolia Transportation and First Transit, causing a delay that is creeping up on and will likely surpass a year.

Snow said the answer to that is no. But there certainly is a possibility of more cuts because of the board’s unwillingness to vote for administrators’ recommendation of First Transit, whose bid was $50 million less over a seven-year period.

Commissioners agreed to reissue the bid, splitting the service into geographic areas. In the interim, incumbent provider Veolia Transportation offered to continue the service based on First Transit’s lower operating figures.

A one-year contract still must be negotiated. If Veolia comes back with numbers more in line with its initial bid, it is quite likely more routes will have to be eliminated.

“We expect there won’t need to be additional cuts unless Veolia comes to the table and tries to get more money that would be above and beyond what they committed to last year,” Snow said. “I hope that’s not the case. That would be putting them in a difficult position.”

Not to get sidetracked here, but like the entire bus contract saga, something about this causes one to say, what the what?

If Veolia is able to operate the bus system with First Transit’s number and offer its employees raises between 5 percent and 22 percent — which it recently did — why didn’t the company submit a lower bid in the first place?

Fair question? Yes, Snow acknowledged.

That deserves further exploration.

But the bottom line here is the commission can’t afford to make more cuts.

Last year, the board cut back its paratransit service, allowing only passengers who live three-quarters of a mile from fixed routes to use the program. Previously, the commission accommodated passengers who lived a mile and a half from the fixed-route system to ride paratransit. As fixed routes are cut, so too are paratransit services.

Also burdening the system is the state’s inability to match local funds to pay facilities such as senior and community centers to provide transportation to disabled residents. Those who once took advantage of the program are now leaning on paratransit.

“We’ve seen a consistent 25 percent increase in paratransit demand,” Snow said. “That has created the budget hole that has been difficult.”

The commission will be hosting public hearings and town hall meetings over the next few weeks to discuss the proposed route eliminations.

Snow emphasized that the routes were chosen carefully so that nearby lines can deviate and still provide rides to critical places such as medical facilities near Rancho Boulevard and Shadow Lane.

“We’ve cut so much out of the system,” Snow said. “To cut more is to cut the bone of the system.”

If you have a question, tip or tirade, call Adrienne Packer at 702-387-2904, or send an email to roadwarrior
@reviewjournal.com. Include your phone number.

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