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Durango Transit contemplates funding as shortfall looms

Service is a ‘lifeline’ for some residents
Georgia Anderson, who is visually impaired, has been dependent on Durango Transit to get around town for groceries and medical appointments. Service cuts in 2018 made traveling harder for her and other regulars on the bus.

Lissa Scott, a 28-year-old single mom, uses Durango Transit to take her son to school and get to work.

Patterson Pinto, 52, hopes to use it for a job at Mercy Regional Medical Center, even if it means working the night shift to be able to catch the bus.

Georgia Anderson, 70, said route cuts in 2018 made it harder for her to get around. For her, a changed bus stop made a big difference.

The majority of transit riders in Durango are dependent on the service, but even after route cuts in 2018, funding the service is still a puzzle.

In 2017, the Colorado Department of Transportation announced it would be cutting grant funding to Durango Transit by about 55%. Public meetings were held and routes were eliminated. The drawdown would take place over five years, with the biggest funding drop in 2023, the city and state agreed.

With two years left, the city is still looking for ways to fill the funding gap.

“Ideally, funding would come from multiple sources in order to be the most equitable and sustainable,” said Sarah Dodson Hill, Durango’s assistant director of transportation. “Public transit funding is quite a puzzle that will require a lot of participation from different sources.”

The largest source of funding for Durango Transit operating costs comes from a federal grant administered by CDOT, the 5311 grant.

Before 2018, the transit service received about $914,000 annually from the grant, which supported $2.5 million in operating costs. By 2023, it will receive about $414,000.

The state decreased funding to Durango while trying to equitably distribute the federal grant money between a growing number of Colorado transit agencies, said David Krutsinger, CDOT director of transit, in an email to The Durango Herald.

To prepare for decreasing revenue, city staff members decided to cut certain routes based on public feedback and usage data.

Durango Transit dropped the Crestview-U.S. Highway 160 route, the Mercy-Three Springs route and portions of the Fort Lewis College route. The city partnered with Road Runner Transit to provide some rides to Mercy Regional Medical Center. With the cuts, the city spends $2 million annually on Durango Transit operational costs.

Daily commutes

Anderson, a resident at Cedar View Apartments, said she used the bus to go everywhere – the grocery store, Walgreens pharmacy, the Mercy clinic at Horse Gulch. Even with lower capacity on buses to minimize spread of COVID-19, she still uses it once or twice a week.

Riders, like Georgia Anderson, call public transit a “lifeline.” With state funding decreasing, the city is searching for sustainable funding options to expand its service.

“I really am trying to live where I can walk a lot. If I can stay healthy enough and stay mobile, I’ll just take the bus as close as where I’m going and walk the rest,” she said. “But there are people I live with who can’t walk.”

But the route cuts made it harder, she said. For example, she now has to cross more streets to leave the Durango Transit Center, her new stop to visit the grocery store.

“It’s hard to get off at the Transit Center. I’m blind. I have to cross two streets,” Anderson said. “Sometimes, people yell at me, saying look both ways. I’m like, ‘I didn’t see you – I’m blind.’”

Before the route cuts in 2018, Pinto used to take the night bus for her shifts as a certified nursing assistant in Three Springs. She’d get off at 6 a.m. and wait at Mercy hospital for an hour to catch the bus home.

She’s searching for new jobs, including positions at Mercy. She’s already planning around transit, anticipating taking the night shift again to make sure she can get to work.

Taking the day shift? “That would be nice,” Pinto said. “I’m a morning person to begin with.”

Scott, who started using the bus in 2020, takes her son to Needham Elementary School four days a week. The round-trip commute would be six minutes in a car, if she had one. On the bus, it takes an hour, she said.

The main challenge for her is the limited capacity to maintain social distancing on buses as a way to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

“The customer service we get from Transit is amazing. ... Everybody’s super friendly,” Scott said. “Transit really is a lifeline. I don’t want to complain too much because it’s what we depend on.”

The future of funding

Durango Transit still provides rides seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. with 20- to 30-minute wait times, depending on the route.

The state also awarded Durango $623,000 in coronavirus relief funds to enhance access to medical services at Mercy for residents. That money has to be spent by the end of 2021. Other federal COVID-19 relief funds will be awarded in 2021, which can be spent after the end of the year, Krutsinger said.

“While it isn’t sustainable, it is an opportunity to increase service out there for the time being,” Dodson Hill said.

About 79% of riders, like Georgia Anderson, are dependent on Durango Transit to get around town. The transit service, however, does not have enough funding to return to its pre-2018 levels, when some routes were dropped.

The cost to reinstate the eliminated routes would be about $434,000, in addition to the $2 million the city is already spending.

“Because of the service reductions we made in 2018, we do have a sustainable budget,” she said. “But that does not meet the demand for increased service area or increased service hours. It doesn’t allow us to hit those marks of very convenient service that the public really wants.”

In the past, Dodson Hill said the public has asked for transit service to outlying areas, such as Hermosa, Hesperus, Durango-La Plata Airport and Durango West. People also want increased service hours and shorter intervals between buses.

“That would be our ultimate goal. We know that our riders are about 79% transit dependent,” Dodson Hill said. “We want to create a service that’s very convenient, useful, safe and reliable. I feel like people who are dependent on the service deserve increased capacity on the routes.”

Durango is looking for a sustainable, local source of funding, such as public-private partnerships or sales tax increases.

Of the state’s 10 largest rural transit agencies, eight either have sales or property taxes or both dedicated to local transit service, Krutsinger said.

“Durango is in the minority of those agencies not having a dedicated local funding source,” he said. “Durango Transit’s financial situation is made more complex by a key activity center, the hospital, residing in unincorporated La Plata County.”

One option might be the proposed lodgers tax increase, which is on the ballot this April. The tax, paid by people staying at hotels, motels or other vacation rentals, would add about $500,000 annually to the transit budget.

With that funding, the city would be able to maintain its pre-COVID-19 service level. It would be able to do some modest, sustainable enhancements, Dodson Hill said.

“We do anticipate that as this cliff year comes closer, these conversations are going to become more eminent,” she said. “We are expecting to make some progress toward funding sources pretty soon.”

For the regulars on the bus, having service at all is a necessity and expanded service opens up new opportunities.

“As a single parent, this being our main form of transportation, it gets us to doctor’s appointments, school, groceries, play dates. It literally does everything we need. It’s affordable,” Scott said. “We really, really depend on the bus system. Without it, we would be stranded.”

smullane@durangoherald.com

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