Fast, frequent and free: Future of North Lake Tahoe’s public transportation?
November 20, 2012
TAHOE/TRUCKEE — In the early evening hours on a brisk Wednesday, Homewood resident Jarek Sznytzer stood outside waiting with a bag in tow at the newly completed Placer County Transit Center in Tahoe City for his ride: a TART bus.
"It only runs about every hour," he said. "Every half hour would be nice … Otherwise (the service), it's good. It's on time, most of the time."
Soon after, his bus arrived, and he and two other passengers boarded. The bus idled for a few minutes with its doors open, waiting for possible additional passengers, before departing.
Later, while waiting for her bus inside the $4.8 million transit center, Rosie Ibarra, a student living in Kings Beach, was asked to grade the current state of public transit and comment on what might be improved. Her response to the latter: shorter headways, service hours extended to midnight for those who work into the evenings and service around the lake.
Despite the suggestions, a variety of local and Western transit officials agree: Several challenges unique to this region stand in the way.
"It goes back to that idea of being all things to all people," said Lynn Rumbaugh, transit manager for the city of Aspen, Colo. "We have a hard time figuring out sometimes how to operate services more efficiently when we have a group of people that are demanding really fast frequency. They want service at 2 a.m., (and others) they want service 6 a.m. We have services that we really should probably run year-round, but we can only afford to run them in the offseason."
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Rumbaugh and roughly 60 other people, ranging from Western ski resort representatives to regional transit officials to residents, gathered late last month for the 2012 Transit Summit at Truckee Tahoe Airport to discuss how to improve area transit while acknowledging the funding challenges and economic benefits of such an endeavor.
Kent Cashel, director of public works for Park City, Utah, said the city used to have multiple transit systems like North Tahoe currently has but decided to "integrate" them rather than keeping them independent or interfacing them.
"We could have one schedule and one look and feel to the buses, so when any user looked at the system, they recognized it, they knew where to get the information, and it was simple to use," he said.
Other characteristics of Park City's transit system, which is shared by the other resort communities present at the summit — Aspen and Summit County, Colo. — include short headways and extended daily service.
"… We've got the double hump with the two-shoulder season, but we found that if you cut back significantly in the shoulder seasons, you lose all of your employee ridership," said Thad Noll, assistant county manager for Summit County. " … a lot of our service is (to) employees, so you've got to cater to that. That's really what drives the system."
Yet the key element to all three resort communities' transit system: It's free for the riders.
Funding 'complicated stew'
Just because the transit system is free to riders, however, doesn't not mean it's free for the provider.
"It's very common in resort transportation systems that we're looking at a range of funding sources," said Walter Kieser, managing principal of Economic and Planning Systems, who was the keynote speaker at the summit. "That's important because we really want to mix it up, so we have a broad base of financing."
Rumbaugh said Aspen follows such a system, characterizing it as a "complicated stew." Public transit costs Aspen approximately $4 million annually, increasing at about 5 percent a year, for a nine-bus fleet and is funded through sales tax, lodging tax, use tax, development fees, grants and parking fees.
"Every year, our parking office, if they make a profit, they turn that profit over to me, and I spend it," Rumbaugh said. "That tends to be anywhere from $500,000 to $900,000, depending on the year. I think that's an amazing way to pay for transit."
She wasn't alone; a few of the summit attendees expressed interest in the idea.
"It's not very popular among the general public, but I love it," Rumbaugh said.
Locally, transportation providers also rely on a range of funding sources — which are increasingly challenged by the fickle economy.
The cost to operate TART for the 2012-13 fiscal year is about $3.16 million, with sales tax generating approximately $1 million in funding, said Placer County's TART manager Will Garner. Back in 2007-08, however, sales tax used to generate about $1.2 million to $1.25 million.
"Since 2008, sales tax took a dive off of a cliff that year and we lost a lot of our sales tax base revenue," he said.
The rest of TART is funded through Placer County's Transient Occupancy Tax funds, providing 29 percent of funding, along with fare revenue (14 percent), federal funding (13 percent), other agencies (8 percent) and state transit assistance (5 percent).
"We have a number of intergovernmental cooperative agreements to receive funding from," Garner said. "All the outside entities keep us running. Every last dollar is necessary."
Sometimes even a variety of funding sources isn't enough, however.
Kelly Beede, parking service manager for the town of Truckee, said reserve funds may need to be dipped into to cover Truckee's 2012-13 transit expenditure budget of approximately $767,000 — $295,000 of which goes to the town's Dial-A-Ride, with $199,000 to the Fixed Route service.
For regions considering improving transit, Kieser advised they should weigh the cost versus the economic benefits of such an undertaking.
"One of the things that we look at when we're looking at the question of investments and making changes like this (is): What are you trying to do from an economic perspective?" he said. "We're looking for measurable results that would come from improving the transportation system and linkages."
Only if economic benefits can be derived should a community move forward with plans to improve its transit system, Kieser said. Some of those potential benefits include: an increase in revenue for public and private entities; improvements in the job market, recreational facilities, shops and restaurants; and an increase in property values.
All this would be due to attracting more destination visitors to the area, he said.
"While you benefit from the proximity to the Bay Area and those weekend visitors, in terms of economic development and strengthening, it's looking at those destination visitors, those people who come and stay longer that … growth can occur," Kieser said. "Those destination visitors have certain expectations, and increasingly, one of those expectations is to be able to move around easily between the assets in the resort community."
Richard Anderson, exiting Truckee Town Council member and soon-to-be Nevada County supervisor, stressed the importance of getting destination visitors to travel outside the ski resorts and into the communities in order to spread the wealth.
Transportation can encourage that, Kieser said, either through the placement of bus pick-up/drop-off facilities in the community or bus routes that allow visitors to see the community's dining and shopping options.
"One thing we know from our work is that the destination visitor is different," he said. "What people are looking for in terms of a destination often times now mixes it up with not only the recreation skiing but also dining (and) retail shopping. So downtowns like Truckee are really well placed to build on their existing assets to attract those kinds of visitors."
Still, the North Shore's size, its many existing transit options and lack of available state funding, among others, pose unique challenges to a transit system, Kieser said.
But Alex Mourelatos, owner of the Mourelatos Lakeshore Resort, is undaunted by them.
"A lot of times you have to look at this (and ask) is it too many problems. Is it too complex?" he asked. "In fact, the opportunity is that it is a whole lot of small challenges, and you're only going to solve that if we come together as a selective body. I think we should all be focusing on a vision of what transportation could be and not at all what it is today."
Margaret Moran is a reporter for the Sierra Sun, a sister publication of The Union based in Truckee.
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