COEUR d'ALENE - Responding to mounting financial pressure, the Kootenai County commissioners voted unanimously on Tuesday to approve reductions to Citylink transit service, which include shortening the hours the free bus system runs, scrapping a route to Stateline, and eliminating paratransit service for more than 40 disabled riders.
"This is not the motion I want to make, but it's the motion I have to make, with the options presented to us," said Commissioner Dan Green before the vote at the officials' weekly business meeting at the administration building.
Reflecting on a public hearing from last week, Commissioner Todd Tondee agreed that dropping services was the only choice, without any other obvious funding sources to maintain services as they are now.
"That's the determining factor, to reach the most people in urbanized areas that we can with the money we get," Tondee said, adding that the county will continue to pursue private funding. "It's not an easy decision. This certainly will affect the lives of the people who do not get that service."
The Coeur d'Alene Tribe has long bore the brunt of funding the transit service, which cost $1.9 million in its costliest year and has slid to about $1.7 million, said Christine Fueston, county Federal Transit Administration grant administrator, on Tuesday.
But the service is no longer financially sustainable, and Fueston said the county has been reviewing how to make it more so for several months.
"Unfortunately, transit service is expensive," said Fueston, who has calculated less than $1 million in federal grant and match funds now available for the service. "People are surprised by how much it costs."
The reductions, expected to take place in mid May, include ending bus service at 10 p.m. every day, instead of at 1:40 a.m.
The A route that runs to Stateline will be eliminated, with B route reconfigured to pick up the former route's riders.
Two-way service will be provided between Post Falls, Coeur d'Alene and Hayden to minimize loop routing. More bus stops will be added, and service expanded on Idaho Street to Poleline Avenue, then Poleline Avenue to Spokane Street.
Buses will leave the Riverstone Citylink stop every 60 minutes, instead of every 85 minutes.
Some riders will wait longer - up to two hours, at one C route stop - because buses alternate their route directions, Fueston acknowledged.
"It depends on where you live," Fueston said of the waiting period.
The full list of changes can be viewed at www.kcgov.us.
Dave Carlson, getting off the Citylink bus at the Riverstone stop on Tuesday afternoon, said he didn't expect the changes to affect his bus ride commute to work at the Coeur d'Alene Casino.
"It saves a lot of gas, that's the best part," the Coeur d'Alene resident said. "I think it's great."
The biggest question on Tuesday for the commissioners was how reductions would affect paratransit, which picks up mentally and physically disabled riders at their doorsteps.
Federal law dictates that paratransit service be provided within three-fourths of a mile of a fixed transit route. So when Citylink routes are reduced, paratransit shrinks, too.
The reductions would eliminate paratransit pick up for roughly 44 disabled folks.
The commissioners discussed reducing that number by expanding paratransit coverage, but they couldn't estimate the added cost.
"Are we spending another $10,000? Another $20,000?" Green said. "We have no idea."
The commissioners also noted that paratransit riders could rely on Kootenai Medical Center transit to pick them up, take them to KMC and wait for Citylink paratransit to pick them up there.
"It may not be the first choice, but it will get them there," Green said.
Coeur d'Alene resident DeLaine Wardell said losing paratransit could sacrifice her independence.
Completely blind, she relies on paratransit to go to the gym, get groceries and buy yarn for knitting, she said.
"It means I can go out and do stuff I want to do," Wardell said, adding that friends can't chauffeur her every day.
She noted that Citylink paratransit only has to be scheduled 24 hours in advance, but she has to book KMC pick ups weeks ahead.
"I really need to be able to count on something that I can depend on to be there," Wardell said.
Roughly 274 disabled riders use paratransit, Fueston said, though the number is constantly rising.
The paratransit operation cost about $36,000 last month, she said.
Paratransit driver George Gates said that though he might lose hours under the reductions, he understood the need.
"We've been telling governments, 'Stay within your budgets,'" Gates said. "That's what they're doing."