THE BUZZ: Back of the Bus

By on May 9, 2017

The valley’s only public transit will be studied for its ridership and funding.

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – To define “fairness” in START funding, town and county electeds voted last week to approve a 10-member funding task force that will investigate who, exactly, is riding the START bus, and who should really be paying for it. While the failure of all three of START’s SPET initiatives suggests public burnout, START director Darren Brugmann warns of an uncertain future without public support.

“Federal subsidies have remained flat, and local contributions have had to catch up as operations increase,” he said. “We need to look for other sources just to continue services. There is a concern that it stays stable, and possibly declines.”

The SPET proposals were for capital projects: replacing old buses, adding to the fleet, expanding the maintenance facility. The budget in question is just to sustain operations. But public support is needed for both, says County Commissioner Greg Epstein, because transportation is a public service. “[START] has obviously been shut down through trying to tax people twice in a row,” Epstein said. “Where else do we generate revenue?”

Epstein noted that public services are generally revenue-negative, and require public subsidies to sustain. “The reason we have [public services] is because we all contribute to them,” he said. Otherwise, “it just doesn’t pencil … you look to public dollars to subsidize so it’s revenue neutral at the end of the day.”

Teton Village Association and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort pay a portion of those subsidies. Brugmann’s original ask of the town and county at a May 25 joint information workshop was to compare funding distribution between Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and Teton Village Association, and other revenue sources like the lodging tax and the town and county budget. TVA and JHMR collectively pay approximately a third of operating costs each year through season pass and employee pass sales. Meanwhile, almost half of the operating budget goes toward maintaining services to Teton Village.

“The question is, what is a fair contribution for all parties?” Brugmann said. “What are [TVA and JHMR] paying compared to other sources of income?”

As town planner Bob McLaurin joked at a joint information workshop, however, “fair is what happens at the rodeo grounds on the third week in July.” In other words, fairness is a complicated metric.

While Brugmann and Councilman Jim Stanford advocated for increased contributions from the resort and TVA, Commissioners Mark Newcomb and Epstein noted that many other businesses in Teton County benefit from START services, but don’t contribute to funding.

“Before we pinpoint [JHMR AND TVA] in particular, we should look broadly at who’s causing the congestion,” Newcomb said. “Who’s imposing the cost on the rest of us, and shouldn’t we be asking something of them?”

Rides to and from Teton Village are not the only service START provides. START has grown accustomed to Teton Village “just kind of paying their share, saying you’re the ones that benefit the most,” Epstein said. “There are a lot of other businesses that aren’t contributing … but are benefiting from the service.”

TVA and JHMR’s contributions are mandated by Teton Village’s master plan, which includes a requirement to mitigate traffic. “They are tasked with quite specifically taking a certain number of cars off the road based on comfortable carrying capacity,” Newcomb explained. The transit facility and paid parking are both written into the master plan.

The irony, Newcomb said, is that while Teton Village is required to charge for parking and mitigate traffic, other businesses in town are required to provide a certain amount of free parking. “We require business to build parking, which encourages people to get in their car,” Newcomb said.

Research supports Newcomb’s claim. The Economist reported that in Washington D.C., “the availability of free parking is associated with a 97 percent chance somebody will drive to work alone.” Another Economist article in the same issue noted that even after a “ballyhooed urban revival and many expensive tram and rapid-bus projects” across the country in 2014, the amount of people driving to work alone actually increased by three percent due to the “ever-growing supply of free parking.” Free parking, in short, does little to encourage people to leave their cars at home.

On top of that, Brugmann pointed out, Stilson is the only park-and-ride location in the county, and is not serviced in the summer unless riders call in advance, which Brugmann said is often too much of a burden. START is looking to expand summer services to Stilson, but doing so would require extra funding, which START doesn’t currently have. Back to square one.

Ultimately, START board members and town and county officials heard Epstein’s and Newcomb’s appeal to a more “holistic” approach. The task force will include representatives from JHMR and TVA, as well as Shooting Star, which pays an annual impact fee. One of its goals, however, is to determine where START can pull additional revenue sources. At the deciding joint meeting last Monday, Commissioner Smokey Rhea echoed her fellow electeds’ concerns. “We want the person at the end of the road to pay for everybody,” she said. “There are 540 short-term rentals between the Aspens and Highway 22, but they don’t pay anything. I don’t want to single out any single organization.”

While collecting additional revenue will take time and will likely not draw any results for this year’s budget, Epstein said another part of the task force will be examining where services are needed most, and where START can cut back. He says that people see empty buses and assume no one ever uses START, but “that’s completely untrue.”

“You can’t have a robust public transportation system without service,” he continued. “It’s going to take the public sector and START to dig into it, figure out where we can cut… what’s going to make the biggest impact.”

The Chamber of Commerce, Board of County Commissioners, Jackson Town Council, and START board will also contribute to the task force. Each entity will name its participants by May 16. PJH

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