Other Voices: Gold Country Stage improvements ahead | TheUnion.com

Other Voices: Gold Country Stage improvements ahead

The Nevada County Department of Public Works provides a variety of functions including maintenance of our road system, management of the county’s vehicle and heavy-equipment fleet and management of the Gold Country Stage public transit system. This opinion piece focuses on the Gold Country Stage.

Gold Country Stage operates a small “fixed route” public transit system in western Nevada County. The transit system primarily serves the commercial areas in Grass Valley, Nevada City and Glenbrook Basin. In addition, it serves Penn Valley/Lake Wildwood, as well as a commuter route to Auburn.

Our current year budget for Gold Country Stage is about $3 million.

Also included in the county’s transit services are paratransit services for persons with disabilities who are unable to use the fixed-route bus system. The inclusion of a paratransit system to accompany the fixed-route system is mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The paratransit service is provided by Gold Country Telecare, a nonprofit organization under contract with the County. Gold Country Telecare serves western Nevada County.

Public transit in Nevada County is funded by several sources. Some of these funds are taxes that we all pay through different sources. The largest source of funds is general sales tax. Sales tax provides two-thirds of the operating revenue for Gold Country Stage.

Other funding sources include federal transit funds and bus fares collected from passengers. Fares account for about 11 percent of the operating costs of transit. As you can see, public transit is a heavily subsidized public service. These funding sources and percentages are pretty typical for other public transit operations throughout California and the U.S.

Transit is one of the public services that has been particularly hard hit by the economic downturn. Transit revenue has decreased by about 40 percent in the past two years.

This is primarily due to the rapid drop in general sales tax. With the economic downturn, people are making substantially fewer purchases. This has led to a cut in transit service available to the community.

Last year, routes to Colfax and North San Juan were cut entirely. This coming year, although all of the bus routes will remain intact, the frequency of bus service will be reduced. This means that instead of a bus showing up at a given stop every half hour, it will now show up every hour.

Transit services throughout California have experienced some friction with the state over the past year with regards to distribution of certain funds traditionally used by transit. A portion of gas sales tax has been used by transit for many years for purchasing replacement buses as well as other “capital” purchases.

A little over one year ago, the state claimed this money to help with California’s cash issues. This funding grab was challenged in court and the state was ordered to stop taking this money. The governor is now pursuing legislation to change the law to get around the court order.

The reality is that we’ve probably lost these funds forever. As we are seeing in many of our local services, the state’s financial woes can have a serious negative effect on our ability to provide service.

Despite all of the financial issues facing transit, county staff has managed to cobble together a funding package to resolve a long standing operational problem. For many years the primary bus transfer location in Grass Valley has been located at Church and Neal streets. This location is substandard for safety and for the Americans with Disabilities Act. It really needs to be fixed.

Thanks to a federal stimulus grant and state transportation bond funds, the Public Works Department will be building a new bus transfer facility near the Holiday Inn in Grass Valley this summer. It is important to clarify that these funds are restricted as to how they may be used; they cannot be used to subsidize bus routes, fuel, pay driver salaries, etc.

Even with the current reduction in transit services, Nevada County continues to have a need for public transit. Once the economic situation stabilizes, the county transit system will be poised to expand again.

Hank Weston is Nevada County’s District 4 supervisor. He is running unopposed in this year’s election.

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