Citylink is a success story.
And, with that success, comes a cost.
The Coeur d'Alene Tribe, Citylink's major contributor, says it is time for local agencies to get on the bus to develop alternative funding sources before the popular free transit service is affected.
The Tribe recently delivered the Kootenai Metropolitan Planning Organization board a stern letter signed by Coeur d'Alene Tribe Chairman Chief Allan asking area agencies, including the cities, the county, chambers of commerce and North Idaho College, to look for "outside the box" funding solutions.
The Tribe has been the largest contributor to the popular Citylink service, spending $1.2 million in 2010. The service also received $850,000 in federal grants in 2010, compared to $900,000 in 2009.
"It's time to roll up our sleeves and get to work before it's too late," Allan wrote. "It is my view that KMPO members who benefit from public transit should formulate a long-term plan for the funding requirements of the system in a proportionate manner."
Marc Stewart, Tribe spokesman, said there's no plans to cut routes or service altogether, however.
"We've made some minor adjustments to routes based on ridership numbers and we'll continue to evaluate those, but we have not eliminated routes," Stewart said.
He said there isn't a magic number in terms of how much additional funding is needed to ensure uninterrupted service, but added that collaboration on funding is needed for the long-term survivability of the program. Stewart said the Tribe has contributed more than $1 million above and beyond its required match for the federal grants over the past two years.
"The Tribe is committed to Citylink and its long-term success," Stewart said. "However, that commitment is not a blank check. The Tribe believe it's time for everyone to that benefits from public transportation to help carry the load. It's time to be proactive about long-term planning instead of waiting for a crisis."
Citylink is a partnership among several agencies. The county owns the vans, but the Tribe and federal grants are the lone funding sources for operations. Other agencies assist. For example, local chambers spearheaded a bus bench project that secured donations to get the benches built, installed and sponsored.
Riders praise the service and want to see it continue to succeed.
Greta Carson of Post Falls, who regularly rides Citylink, said the service is her main mode of transportation and she'd "feel lost" if it's ever cut.
"It's a wonderful service, and that's not just because it's free," she said. "It's dependable and it's how I get to the grocery store and around town. I sure hope that it will be around for awhile."
Joe Jepson of Post Falls said Kootenai County needs to continue to have an established bus system.
"With the way this area is expected to grow after the recession, it's only going to get busier," said Jepson, who rides about twice a month both in the urban area and to the Coeur d'Alene Casino. It needs to continue, and I'd hope that it can be funded for at least as long as I can live."
Citylink provided a record 556,565 rides in 2010 in the greater Coeur d'Alene-Post Falls area and southern Kootenai County. It surpassed its monthly records during every month last year, averaging about 47,000 rides per month. Ridership has more than doubled since 2007, its first full year of operation. The service was originally projected to reach a maximum of 360,000 rides per year.
Stewart said the most popular routes are in the urban area, not to the casino.
Stewart said the record number of riders points to the service's success, but more riders has also meant more fuel costs and stops. The costs to operate Citylink have increased 39 percent - or $542,000 - since 2007.
"The cumulative effect over the past few years requires an equally cumulative response," Allan said. "Therefore, the Coeur d'Alene Tribe is asking KMPO to seek alternative funding sources to ensure the long-term viability of the Citylink program.
"Given Citylink's growth pattern and increasing expenses over the last three years, the Tribe believes it is important that everyone works together while facing these difficult budgetary realities."
The Tribe's plea has captured area agencies' attention, especially since the Tribe is Citylink's main contributor and it's the first time the Tribe has brought up funding.
"We're having this very discussion because it's been so successful," said Rathdrum mayor and KMPO board member Vic Holmes of Citylink. "It's unusual that success would create a problem. It's a valuable system."
Allan said the situation may result in area agencies having to contribute. Local cities and the county have contributed a total of nearly $90,000 each year for the now-defunct nonprofit North Idaho Community Express/Kootenai Area Transit System for transit services. Officials are wondering those if funds can be transferred to Citylink if the Tribe agrees to take over those routes.
While the Tribe is interested in discussing taking over the urban Coeur d'Alene-Post Falls-Hayden service formerly offered by NICE/KATS with Citylink, no decisions have been made.
NICE/KATS offered door-to-door service for seniors and those with disabilities. Citylink offers such a service for its rural routes, but not in the urban area.
"(Door-to-door) wouldn't be totally foreign for Citylink, but we haven't done it on that scale," Stewart said.
County Commissioner Todd Tondee said it is his understanding that NICE/KATS was going above and beyond the service commitment that the Federal Transit Administration grant requires of the county.
"So there may be some people who were getting service by NICE/KATS that may not get the same service under the new service provider when we finally get a contract," Tondee said.
Officials are seeking a provider for the urban and rural routes in Bonner and Shoshone counties formerly handled by NICE/KATS, which lost its rural funding as a result of managerial and financial audits. That process may take a month or longer. Kootenai Medical Center has agreed to temporarily take on the medical transit services in the urban area as it already has a program in place.
Officials said they are interested in learning about the NICE/KATS audits, which the Idaho Transportation Department is expected to make public soon.
Post Falls contributed $21,950 in 2010 to NICE/KATS and is looking at a similar amount for the next budget for public transportation.
Post Falls City Administrator Eric Keck said the city would be hard-pressed to contribute much more than that, however, due to its own lean budget.
Keck said that, while it may be unpopular to advocate, he believes an answer to ensuring Citylink is adequately funded could be to charge a nominal amount for passengers.
"We cannot continue to expect that the Tribe can afford to cover the entire cost of public transportation for the public," Keck said. "They have been very generous up to this point. The time to devise an alternative plan is now. Given that the cities in the county have also been impacted by the economy and will be the last to reap the reward of any recovery, it is not probable that a great deal of additional contributions can be expected right now."
Stewart said all options will be explored, but a pay service may result in the loss of some grant funding, so it must be considered cautiously.
Coeur d'Alene Mayor Sandi Bloem said Coeur d'Alene had heard about Allan's letter, and would be willing to see if funding sources could be tapped down the line.
"Citylink has proven to be a huge asset to the community and I certainly believe all the partners would be willing to sit down and figure out whatever it is we need to do to keep it running as it is," she said.
Holmes said Rathdrum lost its lone public transit service when NICE/KATS came to a halt, so it and other cities in the northern part of the county would welcome Citylink coming. That city spend more than $6,166 for the service.
Transit authority talks to resume
Some officials said that, with the Citylink funding issue and the halt to the NICE/KATS routes, now is also the time to re-open talks about forming a regional public transportation authority (RPTA) in the county.
Last year the KMPO discussed sending the creation of a RPTA to county commissioners, who would send it to voters, but it never made the November ballot.
Some officials didn't believe creating a RPTA was a priority with other issues at the time and thought it was best to wait until the election was over to educate the new commissioners on the benefits of a RPTA.
"The board (of commissioners) at the time thought there were to many unanswered questions," Tondee said. "It needed further refining."
Staci Lehman, KMPO spokeswoman, said local officials are now seeing the need first-hand for one entity to handle all things public-transportation related.
The KMPO, with Allan's letter in hand, recently agreed to rekindle the proposal and work with the new commissioners on transportation issues and floating an RPTA ballot measure.
"The timing is right," said Post Falls Mayor Clay Larkin, a KMPO member. "Given the recent (transit) happenings, this is a very good time to move it ahead."
Holmes added: "I believe we need an RPTA so we can find some other funding mechanisms."
Allan said establishing a RPTA "continues to merit consideration."
An RPTA is a government agency that coordinates services, monitors how federal grant money is spent and secures funding through federal and local sources. The authority would create a manager who deals strictly with public transportation.
Since Kootenai County doesn't have a transit authority - like Spokane Transit Authority in Spokane - different agencies involved in the KMPO such as cities, highway districts, the county and Coeur d'Alene Tribe are responsible for planning, funding and operations regarding public transportation.
A loose-knit collaboration between the agencies is how this area has gotten by without a transit authority.
The original recommendation to form a transit authority came from the 2005 Kootenai County Public Transportation Feasibility Study.
Since then, several projects have come up that have illustrated how it would be easier to work through one operational fund than several, transportation officials said.
An RPTA is governed through a board made of local elected and appointed officials representing cities, the county, highway districts and the Tribe.
The Idaho Legislature in 1994 passed a law allowing cities and counties to form public transportation authorities.
The legislation was approved without designating a funding source for the authorities. Government agencies within the region may, at their discretion, enter into an agreement with the authority to contribute funds from any source, provide in-kind services and loan or convey real and personal property to the authority to support public transportation.
Staff writer Tom Hasslinger contributed to this report.