By on May 19, 2015

START continues to expand but is everybody on the bus?

052015cover.tetonbusTeton County’s mass transit system begins and ends with START. The Southern Teton Area Rapid Transit authority has grown (some would say ballooned) by leaps and bounds during its 35-year existence.

Michael Wackerly has steered START over the hill, down the canyon, and finally parked it into a controversial bus garage. The director of the joint agency mass transit system will be turning in his bus pass at the end of the month after doing exactly what he did at his last gig back east: grind away for more than a dozen years implementing and improving service until a bus barn eventually gets built.

“When I first started in Mansfield, Ohio [as director of the Richland County Bus System] it was 1979 and the first thing they told me was, ‘we need to build a bus garage,’” Wackerly said. “I finally built it in 1990. It took 11 years. Here, it was almost exactly the same. I started in 2002 and right away I was saying we need a bus garage. It took 11 years to make that happen.”

The new bus garage meets green building standards necessary to be granted LEEDs Silver Status Certification. When fully completed, the new facility will be used to maintain vehicles operated by START Bus, town public works, police department, sheriff’s office and fire department. PHOTO: JOSH MYERS

The new bus garage meets green building standards necessary to be granted LEEDs Silver Status Certification. When fully completed, the new facility will be used to maintain vehicles operated by START Bus, town public works, police department, sheriff’s office and fire department. PHOTO: JOSH MYERS

STARTing to pop: All aboard

The explosion of ridership for START Bus under Wackerly is astounding. Since his arrival, START has nearly tripled ridership and routes. Additional trips to bedroom communities in Star and Teton valleys, along with nearly 100 runs to Teton Village during the ski season, helped the transit system seat 900,000 riders in 2014 – a record high. Wackerly has also secured more than $40 million in federal and state grants, allowing him to reduce dependency on town and county subsidies by 20 percent.

When Wackerly took over, START was parking nearly 20 buses outdoors at the fairgrounds. The organization now boasts 35 vehicles in the fleet including four newly purchased used buses from Eagle, Colo., and the first four hybrid buses in the state of Wyoming. With Phase I of the bus facility in Karns Meadow now complete, most of the coaches are stored indoors.

Perhaps Wackerly’s proudest accomplishment is the shift in thinking he’s witnessed regarding mass transit. He’s not sure if it’s a product of a new generation or power of place.

“The one thing I’ve noticed is how people here were much more excited about public transit,” Wackerly said. “They see it as very important to the community. They see it as a solution to a lot of their concerns about the future. That was just a whole different feel from what I saw back east. In Mansfield, they were glad to provide [public transit] but their mentality was: ‘don’t expect it to grow or don’t expect to do much more than you’re doing.’”

When Wackerly first came to Jackson, ridership was mainly tourists – about a 75-25 percent visitor-to-locals ratio, he said. It’s now turned completely around. He estimates 75 percent of the riders live and work in the area.

Enticing more riders through fare reduction or convenient routes is always something Wackerly is willing to explore. Removing vehicles from the roads is something politicians have championed to alleviate traffic congestion and carbon emissions, but the reality of packing buses with potential car drivers is never easy, especially in the West.

“I think there is a little more of that independent spirit in the West than back East,” he said.  “[People in the West think]: ‘I’m not going to ride the bus because I want my own vehicle and control where I’m going. I don’t want to ride with a bunch of other people and be dependent on their schedule.’”

With vehicle traffic up 5 percent per year on commuter routes, the “low-hanging fruit,” Wackerly said, was adding bus service to Jackson’s bedroom communities.

“We’ve really focused on serving the local work trip both between town and the Village, but also Alpine and Driggs/Victor,” Wackerly said. “Adding these two lines is one of the things I’m most proud of. I think visitor ridership has stayed about the same but local ridership has just boomed.”

Rush hour routes to Star Valley began in late 2003. Wackerly tested that market first before tackling the intricacies of crossing state and county lines with a run to Driggs/Victor, which was added in April 2007. These commuter runs average about 20 to 25 passengers per trip and nearly pay for themselves from fares — an achievement almost unheard of in an industry that relies heavily on subsidies.

“Part of the commitment I made to the Town of Jackson and Teton County was that we were going to use little or none of their money to fund that service,” Wackerly said. “Currently, we are running in the range of about 70 to 75 percent fares collected by riders. The rest of our costs are covered by federal money.”

START Board meets regularly with architects, political leaders. PHOTO: JOSH MYERS

START Board meets regularly with architects, political leaders. PHOTO: JOSH MYERS

Running “green” or in the red?

Bussing in employees fits well into the mass transit model. Cherry-picking heavy load times like the morning and afternoon commutes, combined with targeted pick-up and drop-off points, helps ensure buses are running full or close to it. Off-hours and less popular trips mean empty buses, a malady that destroys a carrier’s bottom line and invites mass transit detractors to claim buses are hardly environmentally friendly.

START is not without its critics. Large buses often make in-town runs with only a handful of riders on board. Taxpayers’ blood boils when they see behemoth buses commandeering town streets with almost no passengers. Do transit agencies tint windows and add exterior wraps to reduce air conditioning costs or are they trying to cover up the fact that so many seats are empty?

Statistics are finagled to suit every argument. The 2010 Department of Energy’s Transportation Energy Data Book states transporting each passenger one mile by car requires 3,447 BTUs of energy. Transporting each passenger one mile by bus requires 4,118 BTUs. By this metric, buses are less “green” than advocates like to think they are. However, the numbers smooth out when buses run closer to capacity.

In 2013, buses in the U.S. carried an average of 11.1 passengers. The median bus transit agency carried just 6.5 passengers. But empty buses are a fact of public transit and don’t always indicate poor scheduling or wasted trips. Transit apologists like Jarrett Walker say transit lines need to serve the public even when it’s cost-prohibitive.

“The people served by a low-ridership route might not be populous enough to make a route through a low-density area particularly profitable, but the service is still valuable,” he said in a blog called “Empty buses serve a purpose.” “It serves a goal of coverage, not ridership,”

START’s town shuttle buses are often almost empty during off-peak hours and at the end of certain runs. The impression that demand is low for the service can be deceiving, Wackerly explained. “Last year we carried 432,000 rides on the town shuttle,” he said. “There are times when I’ve seen 50 people on a 29-passenger bus.”

Still, world-renowned transit authority expert Wendell Cox believes some bus operators are spinning their wheels running frequent trips on low demand lines.

“It’s not that environmentally-minded transit promoters are being dishonest when they argue that city buses are more efficient than private cars,” he said. “It’s that they’re talking about a fictional world where far more people ride buses. Mass transit vehicles use up roughly the same energy whether they are full or empty, and for much of the time, they’re more empty than full. For the bulk of the day, and on quieter routes, the average city bus usually undoes whatever efficiencies are gained during the few hours a day, on the few routes, where transit is at its peak.”

Town and county leadership continue to push the environmental angle when touting multimodal transportation. START claims an estimated 118,000 gallons of fuel were saved in 2012, and more than 492,000 fewer cars were on the road because of those who chose to ride the bus. According to START’s figures, vehicle miles are reduced by more than 3 million per year, translating into approximately 100,000 fewer gallons of fuel used — a resulting reduction of 1.8 million pounds of carbon emissions annually. Cox warns people to be wary of the numbers, though.

“As far as buses taking anybody off the road, that’s a real mythical notion,” Cox said. “In fact, there is some evidence, in Washington, D.C., that the principal impact of mass transit has been to strip passengers out of car pools. It hasn’t really done a thing to make it ‘greener.’ And the latest data is showing cars and SUVs, on a passenger basis, are more ‘green’ than buses. How green a bus is is completely a function of how many people are on it.”

Bigger is better, right?

Wackerly admits a big difference between his job in Mansfield and his current assignment in Jackson Hole is the seasonality of the valley. He is constantly tweaking the schedule to anticipate demand.

“I think one of the big differences between the system we have here and the system I was doing in Ohio is, in Ohio we were exactly the same year-round,” Wackerly said. “We ran the same schedule for years without ever changing. Here, it’s so different every season. Winter is by far our biggest season.”

While runs to bedroom communities and to Teton Village are at high loads, the town shuttle struggles to attract riders, prompting many to ask why smaller vehicles aren’t used for shorter east-west runs. Wouldn’t smaller buses on isolated lines be more efficient and less wasteful? The answer is, surprisingly, no.“The problem is, yeah, there are certain times you will look at that bus on the [town] route and you won’t see anybody or very few people in it,” Wackerly said. “But there are other times when it’s full. Almost all of our routes are that way. There are very few of our routes that we are running that you could use a smaller bus on. They are just not big enough.”

Fuel costs are not the driving factor in determining expenses for operating a bus. Larger, 40-foot buses typically get around 5.5 miles per gallon. Smaller buses might get 6.5. But no matter the size of the bus, other overhead costs remain fixed.

“The major expenses are the drivers’ salaries and fringe benefits, although probably 90 percent or more of our drivers are seasonal and don’t get any benefits,” Wackerly said. “The maintenance of the buses also seems to be getting more and more expensive. The fuel expense is a part of it, but the fuel consumption isn’t that significantly different from a big bus to a smaller bus.”

Another reason transit systems like START tend to run bigger buses is because they can. When the federal government is footing the bill, transit agencies figure they may as well get the biggest bus they need. Wackerly estimated START has $7.5 million invested in its bus fleet. Washington, D.C. covered at least 80 percent of that expenditure.

Federal guidelines for capital investment grants in buses call for a minimum of 12 years of operation out of each vehicle. START averages a 15-year lifespan for most of its fleet. Wackerly is concerned, however, with the daunting task of replacing more than a dozen aging Bluebird buses that are nearing the end of their usefulness.

“We’re not going to be able to replace those 13 buses in the next couple of years and expect to get 80 percent of them funded,” Wackerly said. “They are a major investment. Right now, for our 40-footers, it’s about $430,000 a piece. The hybrids we bought are 30-footers and they were about $540,000 a piece. So we’ve got to figure out some other way to do it.”

Bigger buses are noisy and they clog narrow town roads designed a century ago to accommodate horse and carriage more so than the motor coach. For Judd Grossman, who’s lived on Rancher Street for 29 years, the impact of START’s town shuttle service hits close to home. Literally.

“I count 50 to 60 buses past my house every day,” Grossman said. “Most of them are nearly empty. It is not in keeping with the Comp Plan which calls for Rancher to be in the town periphery. The Comp Plan is an inconvenient truth for START. I really think character districts like ours are at the core of the plan. One size fits all doesn’t work here. Right now, START is determining the character of my neighborhood instead of reacting to the character of the neighborhood as defined in the Comp Plan. It’s upside down.”

Wackerly has made attempts to accommodate vocal Rancher residents but the current eastbound lines find the street a convenient end-of-the-line turnaround.

“There has been a big discussion about the town shuttle, particularly on Rancher,” Wackerly said. “Yeah, if you look at the bus in East Jackson there’s not that many people on it, but that same bus is serving West Jackson where it is overflowing at times. It’s not easy for the general public to understand.”

Frequency of runs is also a concern for Grossman and others who wonder whether taxpayers are getting the best bang for their bus. Wackerly said a regular and reliable schedule is important. He prefers a maximum of 30 minutes between buses.

“Frankly, I think they want to run it every five minutes,” Grossman said. “As a conservative person, I wonder whether these big government agencies can sometimes get out of hand — get to a point where they are just continuously growing in a self-perpetuating fashion. But what I’ve discovered is there is a huge push from the board and electeds who are really freaked out by the fact that WYDOT wants to expand the highway. And everyone is concerned about global warming issues and therefore very supportive of START. So the problem right now is if you speak out against START you risk being marginalized as a ‘naysayer.’”

Wackerly has proposed dividing east and west town runs, a plan that would ease congestion some and allow for smaller buses. It would also require riders looking to get across town to change to another bus. Elected officials, who feared ridership would suffer with the added transfer, voted down the idea. More recently, Wackerly devised a figure eight town shuttle run that would provide quicker, better service. The added line would tack on an additional $210,000 to START’s annual budget. The proposal was shot down at a Joint Information Meeting two weeks ago on a 3-6 vote with Jim Stanford, Melissa Turley and Smokey Rhea on the losing side.

Fits and STARTs

START’s growth with Wackerly at the wheel is chock-full of eye-popping numbers. An ever-growing operating budget will bust $3.5 million in fiscal year 2016. Phase I of the new bus garage was completed at a cost of about $17 million. Another $25 million is needed to complete the facility. Wackerly believes START can land another grant or two from federal sources that could cover about half the capital outlay, he said. The rest would likely come from two rounds of specific purpose excise tax (SPET) initiatives.

052015cover.mirrorThe agency sputtered obtaining funds for the new depot, prompting government officials to call for a scaled-back version. The compromise was a facility that could be built in stages as money trickled in. Commissioner Paul Vogelheim, who originally voted against the new START garage, was one local politician who wanted to see clearer cost breakdowns and funding sources. He still keeps close tabs on the facility that he would now like to see completed.

“We have a beautiful new facility,” Vogelheim said. “I struggled with it and did not vote in favor of it moving forward because we did not have a discussion first about what the total cost was going to be and how we were going to pay for it, but we went ahead and designed it anyway. We have a $20 to 30 million Phase II and III against a backdrop of [$17 million] for Phase I, so there is a lot more to add on here. We have to sit down and look at the priorities. The greatest need I now see is for our next addition to START to be for a fleet maintenance facility because right now our public works is at capacity.”

Wackerly pushed hard for the new bus barn. Storing buses indoors, especially during Jackson Hole winters, makes life easier for man and machine.

“I try to compare it to people who have a garage and people who don’t have a garage,” Wackerly said. “For your car, wouldn’t you much rather have it in a garage than have to go out every morning and clean the snow off and deal with it sitting out and maybe not starting? It’s the same with buses. They are much more reliable starting. One of the things we had to do when they were outside was start them up two or three hours before we actually left because the buses were so cold we had to warm them up a little. When we had some older buses years ago we actually let them run all night sometimes because you wouldn’t even be able to start them in the morning. If it was 20 below there was no way. It’s a lot less idling now. A lot less wear and tear on the buses. A lot less maintenance.”

Vogelheim agreed but would like to see the bottom line better reflect the improved conditions.

“One of the arguments for having bus storage was we would see a reduction in maintenance costs,” he said. “When we received the 2016 budget for START there wasn’t a substantial reduction in maintenance costs. So I asked, ‘why wasn’t there?’ The answer was attributed to our aging fleet and other circumstances. So we need to dig into that a little bit more.”

The location of the START facility, smack dab in the middle of a sensitive town watershed and within a few hundred feet of drinking water wells, has caused concern among some environmentalists.

“I can’t imagine anybody looking at this building ad saying it’s an eyesore,” Wackerly said. “What used to be here was a staging area and storage for materials while they were doing construction. A lot of industrial-type uses happened on this site before we ever came. So it wasn’t like we replaced a pristine meadow or something.”

The in-town location with dual ingress and egress points has also helped the agency save money.

“We probably have a hundred [deadhead] trips back and forth between the beginning and end of runs and the garage,” Wackerly said. “If you add just one mile to every one of those trips, that’s a hundred miles every day, times the number of days in a year. It adds a lot of wear and tear and a lot of excess fuel. You’ve got to pay the drivers that much longer. It really adds to your expenses. It was in the range of hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to be a few miles further away.”

Outgoing START director Michael Wackerly looks forward to handing over keys to the bus at the end of the month. PHOTO: JOSH MYERS

Outgoing START director Michael Wackerly looks forward to handing over keys to the bus at the end of the month. PHOTO: JOSH MYERS

Sputtering funding?

Cox, who is familiar with Jackson, was surprised at how large a system START is operating.

“You will probably not find a larger transit system for a community your size that is not an urban system,” Cox said. “Your problem is you are a very unique community. I have not looked at resort communities closely. You’ve got a transit system largely because of your tourist business I would suspect, and probably a bit larger employment base. And it sounds like you are spending an awful lot of money. Where you could get hurt is a lot of the federal money goes out on a size formula. Your new facility will be largely funded by discretionary grants and it may be of great concern where Phase II and III come from.”

Transit services almost never pay for themselves. They are primarily subsidy-driven governmental necessities and always an easy target for taxpayer ire. START has managed to exist largely off of federal money but taps the town and county for $850,000 per year.

Wackerly is concerned for START’s future. He knows START is supported by the community but a new director will face “really challenging” times. The Integrated Transit Plan (ITP) calls for doubling ridership by 2024 and doubling that again by 2035. The plan also calls for the START fleet to grow to 60 buses by 2024, and 120 buses by the year 2035. Operating expense for START, after revenue, is anticipated to grow to $8.1 million in 2024 and $18 million by 2035. Those goals don’t appear tangible to the outgoing bus chief.

“That’s going to be an extreme challenge to meet that,” Wackerly said. “The other challenges we have are these old Bluebirds that are getting to the end of their useful life. We’ve got 13 of them. Some of them are getting more and more unreliable. We’ve got to figure out how we re going to replace them. And I’m a little concerned about the federal funding.”

With annual subsidies nearing $20 billion nationwide, the U.S. spends three-and-a-half more times on mass transit than Europe, 10 times what Asia spends. Cox says subsidized transit is not sustainable by definition.

“The potential of public transit has been so overblown it’s almost scandalous,” Cox said. “The U.S. is backward in virtually everything having to do with transit. [As far as] the fear that federal funding going away, I’ve been hearing this line for almost as long as I’ve been in the transit business. I don’t see it happening. That doesn’t suggest you shouldn’t go about things in a judicious manner. Money locally is more important than ‘D.C. money.’ People are not as careful with someone else’s money as they are with their own money. And there will always be reluctance on local officials to saddle their own people with taxes if they can get money from Washington and Cheyenne.”

Vogelheim would like to see a fare-free system implemented. He thinks it would increase ridership closer to ITP objectives. Wackerly admits he’s thought about a fare-free transit plan, but fears losing money from local businesses, especially Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, who buy bus passes for employees and visitors.

“There is a sentiment here to go fare-free,” Wackerly acknowledged. “You are not going to help all that many people and potentially could lose that $300,000 you are getting from local businesses who will say, ‘Why should I fund something that is free?’ We probably make $100,000 to $150,000 or so through the $3 fares that people are putting in. I’ve estimated the total cost of going fare-free to be somewhere between $800,000 and a million dollars a year to do that. To me, that’s a policy decision. I can’t say it’s worth that or it’s not worth it.”

Wackerly favors adding a dedicated penny sales tax to be used for transit and housing in Teton County but convincing political leaders to get behind a tax hike won’t be easy.

“At this point, [I would be a ‘no’],” Vogelheim said. “In the past, I’ve fought very hard against increasing the sales tax. I have always been a proponent of the lodging tax as an alternative. If we did add another penny to the sales tax I think we would be the highest in the state. Everybody else is trying to get to 6 cents, we’d be jumping to 7 cents.”

Comparably-sized communities, operational budget

for mass transit (cost per resident), Year

Jackson, WY $1,770,000 ($174.64) 2006

Aspen, CO $1,996,000 ($296.67) 2006

Key West, FL $3,651,000 ($142.90) 2006

Gainesville, FL $14,296,000 ($112.14) 2013

Harrisburg, VA $5,071,000 ($98.67) 2006

Ames, IA $5,353,000 ($86.63) 2013

Oneonta, NY $1,202,000 ($86.19) 2013

Oshkosh, WI $4,387,000 ($65.70) 2013

Clemson, SC $923,000 ($64.65) 2012

Iowa City, IA $4,387,000 ($61.28) 2013

Bloomington, IN $4,411,000 ($53.42) 2013

East Hampton, NY $54,000 ($48.96) 2002

Pullman, WA $1,073,000 ($34.18) 2013

Mankato, MN $1,387,000 ($34.13) 2013

Grand Forks, ND $1,844,000 ($33.57) 2013

Corvallis, OR $1,779,000 ($32.17) 2006

Portland, ME $2,128,000 ($32.09) 2006

Big Rapids, MI $334,000 ($31.76) 2013

Chico, CA $2,761,000 ($31.35) 2002

Ithaca, NY $867,000 ($28.41) 2002

Greenville, NC $731,000 ($8.20) 2013

Yipsalanti, MI $189,000 ($9.54) 2006

Newark, DE $124,000 ($3.81) 2004

Coeur d’Alene, ID $135,000 ($2.91) 2006

Radford, VA $34,000 ($1.98) 2004


About Jake Nichols

You must be logged in to post a comment Login