The Buses Again, Again

The clock is running.

Tuesday Commissioner Waldack made a presentation to council on how expanding our shuttle use would lower the cost to the village.  It was a creative look, and it actually would work with a couple if’s, the biggest being if the county continues it’s portion of the grants. By expanding the shuttle, it opens up access to grant money for up to 87.5% of the 2010 operating cost of the system (up from the current 10% PACE grant), which would actually lower the cost of the system to below what the smaller, commuter only service costs us now.

The rest of council was grasping for ways to say not so fast.

Staff recommendation remains accept the study and not participate in the current form of the circulator.  Too bad, if they got to it and tried it for a year (2010) it would actually save money for that one year. The gas tax currently tied to the shuttles could go to pay down the shuttle debt.  Then do it next year (2011) if the grants hold steady, and reduce the cost and the debt again. If not, bail. One big question unanswered; if we want to bail, is there anything that would keep us tied to it?

Waldack’s presentation focused on using other people’s money, and time constraints, which he described as a 2 1/2 year window based on when the bus warranties expires.  Any good business decision increases revenues, decreases expenses, and improves service (or some favorable combination).  Waldacks proposal, if implemented, would maybe do all three.

Bus numbers.  WAG or Doable?

WAG or Doable? (Click for larger image.)

He hit his expertise when he started running some what if numbers.  Waldack’s job included being a budget analyst/manager at AT&T before he retired.  He projected 90 reverse commute riders, one or two bus runs to each main north side office area.  He also noted the $151K in gas tax could then be used to pay down the shuttle deficit.  According to his presentation $6 in transactions directly result from every $1 spent on public transportation.  He recommends jumping in on year two, requiring a commitment to participate by June in order to get grant requests in for year two.  So the circulator would also pick up a chunk of the current cost of the shuttle buses.  Instead of the 10% PACE grant, a circulator would qualify for an RTA ICE grant of 50% of the operating deficit and a DuPage County grant of 37.5% of the operating deficit.  It’s the county that might be an iffy thing year to year.

One objection brought up last week was that other communities involved in the circulator aren’t really on board with the program, that they are taking a wait and see attitude due to budget problems.  It appears Waldack did some homework there, and all of the involved communities, Addison, Oak Brook, Lombard, are in according to him.  Wheaton elected to participate in Ride DuPage, but have expressed an interest in moving forward.  Darien has an interest and has already approached PACE.

In response to Sandack’s initial questions about time lines and cut off dates, he asked that DG at least try and not let an opportunity slip by.  Neustadt suggested a local circulator only, unfunded by grants and maybe running one day a week, and having staff look at funding and policy options, as well as getting the public involved as part of strategic planning.  Waldack reminded him that there was a grant submission time line involved.

But the whole idea of shuttles and public transportation is running out of time in DG, even as ridership continues to creep up a bit after years of declines. Waldack said three commuter shuttle buses for a year costs less than than free leaf pick up for a couple weeks, a zinger for the Durkin championed program that got whacked in this year’s budget. Durkin has been consistent and staunchly against the buses, partly due to their single task purpose, mostly due to their expense.

Sandack questioned whether the numbers were any more than concepts, and that maybe submitting grant requests prior to having a plan in place would be akin to putting the cart ahead of the horse.  Waldack suggested that getting the Mayors and Managers (M&M) willing assistance would shorten the time line.

Beckman said he’s willing to listen to any project that lowers cost and increases service, and asked about what flexibility the M&M circulator plan would give DG.  To him, multiple uses makes sense, but he questioned the level of support from the M&M and asked staff for more information as to level of financial support and when that financial support would be available.

Schnell pointed out the six month lead time on funding, and that it was a new program on staff’s plate causing time problems for them sorting out the issues.  If Waldack’s fiscal projections are wrong we may be stuck with a huge deficit, and that there were so many questions unanswered they couldn’t get it done by June.  She seemed a bit concerned that it might muck up the taxi voucher program

Waldack responded the program laid out didn’t have any crossover there.  It might reduce the taxi coupon costs if seniors got in the habit of going on grocery shopping trips, or lunch trips as groups, instead of taking taxis singly or in pairs where DG picks up (on average) half the tab. Waldack thought from conversations he had at senior centers that about $20,000 worth of the $150,000 annual taxi coupons could be avoided.  That would be another, albeit not direct cost reduction to a stressed budget.  The purpose of moving forward would be to lock in the unknown numbers, and that the 2010 year grants would be locked in.  He admits the grant percentages can change for future years and that the decision to participate would be made on that basis.

Sandack sensed council was reacting with caution too slow for Waldack, and said it was a reach to get it all put together.  Waldack said if we can’t do it, we can’t do it, but by trying, we could reduce at least one years worth of shuttle costs, and it was worth making the effort to see if it would work.

Durkin commended Waldack for his work on the presentation, but asked about future year grants, making good on any fiscal shortfalls, the existing PACE route the runs up Main Street to Yorktown, and the addressing of the growing deficit.  He admitted the new buses are working, and would like to see this studied at a strategy meeting, but has no interest in giving people the opportunity to go and spend money elsewhere.

Sandack again commended Waldack for his work but he and Tully were dubious about maybe bypassing the strategic planning process to push this program without thorough discussion Schnell picked up on that and tied it back to the staff time needed.  Fieldman commented he was hearing council asking staff to put together some preliminary information and numbers and said they could do that.

County, as the fickle grant money provider, could really screw things up if they pulled out and left DG holding the bag. Given the history of county fiscal support, and how hard it was to get County Board Chair Schillerstrom on board for the Belmont Underpass funding, that’s a legitimate concern.

Waldack commented on paralysis by analysis, and yeah, procrastinate and deliberate seem to be the order of the day. No one on council besides Waldack wants to get rolling on this, or lay more on a staff plate already pretty full, that was plain to see. Staff will try and nail down some tighter cost estimates for in two weeks. Look for council to accept the Circulator Task Force Committee findings and put it off from there.

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