Each and every person who steps on a bus here is important to Ben Franklin Transit (BFT). After all, providing high quality transportation service is the mission of this public agency, service that is also valued by citizens who seldom step on a bus. They value public transit for the fundamental good it does for this community and its residents.
That means BFT services must be cost-effective as well as high quality. Both are essential standards, and important to taxpayers and riders alike. In periods of economic slowdown, such as now, it’s particularly challenging to balance costs and quality. But that’s what all who work for BFT strive to achieve for transit users and for all taxpayers.
Contrary to what some riders may believe, fares are a minor revenue source for public transportation – less than 15 percent of BFT’s annual costs. Local sales tax revenues carry more than 75 percent of the load. That means in a severe economic downturn when tax revenues sink, our services are impacted negatively, even though ridership may go up. Of course, the high cost of fuel hurts, too.
For the first time in its history, in 2009, BFT was forced to use federal grant money for operations, at least as much as law allows. Even with this help, to balance the budget, cuts were mandatory for some underused bus routes and other transit services.
However, using federal money for our operating costs is strictly a short-term fix. Grant money is needed to buy vehicles and to add Park-N-Ride Centers for passengers. Such capital improvements are essential. What rider wants to rely on unsafe, unsound, worn-out vehicles? Maintaining buses requires shop space and equipment, too. Right now BFT needs to update both its bus and van fleets, including fifty-six (56) Dial-A-Ride vehicles. Still in use are several vintage buses that should be donated to transportation museums. Forty (40) percent of our bus fleet is older than the federal useful lifespan, twenty-four (24) percent of vehicles do not meet ADA requirements.
Many state and federal grants, which BFT works hard to obtain, are limited to such capital improvements. That includes the phased-in construction at BFT’s headquarters. Grant by grant, over nearly five (5) years, with small local matches, federal funds financed long-needed expansions. Without these improvements, transit services could not keep up with population growth. Added, at little cost to local taxpayers, were parking areas for Vanpool and buses, an environmentally safer fueling system, a wash facility that handles small and large vehicles, a modernized Maintenance Building and an office building (along with a remodeled one) to give crowded administrative and operational personnel a little elbow room.
BFT has no intention of making severe service cuts. That could cause a downward spiral in quality of service and ridership. That is why every route is checked and re-checked for cost-effectiveness, usage and residents’ need for service. Hearings are held on changes. Every rider who needs a bus is given careful consideration and accommodated to the best of our ability. We do not want to lose riders. We want to gain riders and meet transit needs. That’s our business. Only routes that are considerably inefficient are changed.
As the region continues to grow, more passenger facilities will be needed, including Park-N-Ride facilities in West Pasco and in Kennewick’s Southridge area. We also are looking at a collaborative effort to upgrade the transit lot at Queensgate and Columbia Park Trail. Across our service area many more shelters and stops should be added. We are also committed to improving service to Columbia Basin College and the airport.
BFT will evaluate using intelligent transportation tools such as GPS and cellular devices for vehicle tracking to monitor location and develop better service analysis tools. Right now Dial-A-Ride software must be updated every few years and there is a need for video and photo security devices.
Altogether BFT’s capital needs for the next five (5) years are more than $30 million, with two-thirds of that going for buses, vans, and maintenance vehicles. Most of the rest is for passenger facilities. Where will the funds come from? Budget woes for the state and federal government could greatly limit future grants for transit. Unless discretionary federal funding grants continue at the same level, BFT’s capital projects will be pared back and some service improvements delayed.
Asking local transit users to take on a little more of the cost may become necessary. But in the coming years, if the Mid-Columbia economy continues to recover, and to grow, transit services should be able to grow with it, for the good of all citizens. Compared to other public transit agencies across the country that depend on sales taxes, BFT survived the recession well. I credit our strong community support, dedicated employees, faithful riders, and persistent planning, which will continue.