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Old Posted Nov 6, 2009, 6:09 PM
kaneui kaneui is offline
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Busses line up at the new Mountain Line transfer station east of the Flagstaff
Mall. The project was paid for with Federal stimulus dollars.
(photo: Jake Bacon)


Bus route expansion on hold
Despite a 35 percent drop in sales tax revenue, Mountain Line will not cut basic service.

By HILLARY DAVIS
Arizona Daily Sun
November 06, 2009

Tax revenue projections haven't gotten any better for the city's transit system, but they haven't gotten any worse. At the same time, a stimulus boost of more than $4 million is helping with some one-time capital projects in Flagstaff and the Mountain Line system's cousins in the Verde Valley area. Mountain Line, which runs daily buses through Flagstaff, will continue almost all of its current services as managers continue to adjust to lower tax collections that will delay most voter-approved system improvements until 2011, about a year later than originally planned.

In March, Jeff Meilbeck, general manager for the Northern Arizona Intergovernmental Public Transportation Authority, said that a 35 percent dip in projected local sales tax revenues for Mountain Line remains in place. Initial five-year projections calling for $30 million in total tax revenues for the period to fund basic services, along with more and newer buses, dropped to $20 million. He said this week that those figures still hold, based on first-quarter returns, and that Mountain Line is on track to meet those adjusted goals. "It feels like we've hit bottom and we're going to be able to hold onto our ground, and climb out from here," he said.

The only service cutbacks at this point: No buses on Thanksgiving and Christmas days. Meilbeck said Mountain Line has only operated on these holidays for the last two years, but ridership ended up being too low to justify running all routes and paying employees working that day double-time. The two-holiday blackout will save $20,000, he said, and officials might have eliminated the Thanksgiving and Christmas service even if the economy hadn't soured. A pay freeze is also in effect for all NAIPTA employees, and drivers have experimented with not idling at transfer centers to save fuel and cut back on emissions. Meilbeck said NAIPTA is legally bound to use its tax collections as directed by the voters, even if operations is feeling a pinch. For example, money raised for new buses cannot be re-directed toward operations.

STIMULUS BUYS BUS, BEAUTIFICATION

Transit authorities have instead been seeking new revenue sources, such as grants. Federal stimulus money has already added a third hybrid-electric bus to the fleet. The new bus, which cost $540,000, has been in service since October. Heather Dalmolin, NAIPTA internal services manager, said another local project would be a $200,000 beautification of the transfer center at the Flagstaff Mall. The additional shelters, benches and landscaping should be done within six months, she said.

Outside of Flagstaff, the Verde Lynx system will begin seven-day-a-week commuter service between Cottonwood and Sedona starting Monday. Verde Lynx also picked up two, 25-seat buses, costing $180,000 each. In Cottonwood, a new, totally solar-powered administration and maintenance building for the local transit system should open this month. That was made possible by $2.8 million in stimulus funds. Dalmolin said if NAIPTA had applied for stimulus relief a little later it could have qualified for a revision that allowed agencies to spend a portion of the grant money on operations. But the stimulus funds are one-time allocations, "and we have to set a system up that's built on one-time funds," she said. Mountain Line itself had more than 1 million boardings last year, and Dalmolin said she expects about 1.1 million this year, a 10 percent increase. In September, there were 99,300 boardings, a new monthly ridership record, she said.

EXPRESS ROUTE GRANT GROWS

Money that should be renewable, the local tax collections, are still coming in, but not as heavily as first thought. That doesn't mean Mountain Line will abandon its improvements that voters handily approved in May 2008 Meilbeck said. They'll just take longer. He said Route 7, which has connected west Flagstaff, Woodlands Village shopping centers and Sunnyside for about a year, is one of the most popular routes and isn't going away. He said Route 7 was the main component of the promise to expand routes, but with the eventual implementation of the next top priority, the Mountain Links express service connecting downtown, Northern Arizona University and Woodlands Village, more service would reach further west into Flagstaff, such as the Railroad Springs subdivision.

A federal grant for the Mountain Links line still requires another layer of assurance from NAIPTA to the Federal Transit Administration -- the local system must show it has the financial capacity to run the line. But Meilbeck said NAIPTA has several months yet to do that, and the government hasn't rescinded its offer. The grant has since grown from $5.7 million to $6.3 million, which Meilbeck said was a sign of confidence. He said he wants to have Mountain Links running within two years. Another grant, worth about $4.4 million, would help purchase hybrid buses. The matching grant would leverage sales tax revenue; Meilbeck said he'd always assumed federal assistance would pay for half of Mountain Line's hybrid buses. The proposition passed last year that maintains basic service was once expected to rake in $3.4 million year. That's now down to $2.4 million. But Meilbeck said he was confident that lower revenues wouldn't significantly alter back current offerings. "I would say Mountain Line's ability to provide the existing service long into the future is solid," he said. "We anticipate no additional service cuts at this time."
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