Our View: Put all options on the table

The Steamboat Springs City Council will get the opportunity Tuesday to begin addressing a lingering problem in the public transportation system.

At issue is the frequency with which buses arrive at stops during the winter tourist season. The city has long had a goal of operating on a 20-minute schedule. Doing so would benefit tourists trying to make the most of short vacations and locals who rely on the buses. It's not just a matter of how long a rider might have to wait, but how well the system can handle peak demand.

For years, the city has had to settle for a 30-minute schedule because it couldn't hire enough drivers to operate more frequently. This season, it came up about a dozen short.

On Tuesday, Transportation Director George Krawzoff will outline for the council why that is. It's more complicated than immediately apparent.

Once, Krawzoff said, resort towns relied for drivers on young, single people whose main concern was skiing. For them, five months of steady, modest pay was enough. Times have changed.

For one thing, drug testing narrows the field of qualified applicants. It's also harder to get a commercial driver's license.

People who can pass those two tests tend to have different needs than the ski-bum drivers of old, Krawzoff said. They have families and financial commitments that make seasonal jobs requiring early-morning and late-night shift work unattractive.

Meanwhile, competition for commercial drivers, especially from the energy industry, has gotten intense. So much so that the city, which runs its own CDL program, now makes drivers agree to repay the $1,000 it spent to license them if they leave.

Then there's competition from other resort towns offering better pay and perks.

Krawzoff has tried some creative things in his search for drivers. He tried recruiting people who spend summers working in the national forests. They were interested, but they shopped around, found that Aspen would subsidize their housing and went there instead.

He's had some success recruiting drivers from abroad. During the 2000-01 season, he was able to hire about six from Australia. He said the program worked pretty well despite complications with visas and housing. It ended when an economic slump sent local people looking for jobs. Krawzoff said it didn't seem right to hire from abroad when locals needed work.

Tuesday he'll ask City Council's permission to look overseas again, and he should get it.

He'll also offer ideas about addressing the deeper issues, all of which would require spending more on the bus system. The City Council should begin seriously discussing those.

Among them are offering seasonal drivers some sort of housing assistance, passes to the Steamboat Ski Area and better pay.

The question soon will become where to find money to increase the department's $2.4 million budget, $1.9 million of which comes from revenue generated by a half-cent of the sales tax rate, the rest from grants and contributions.

We've said before the city should consider a modest user fee to help improve the bus system; that should be part of this discussion.

Krawzoff noted, without advocating anything, that some resort towns dedicate more sales tax revenue to transportation. Aspen, for example, spends revenue from 1.5 cents of its rate. That may not be the solution here, but it should also be part of the discussion.

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