State budget cuts and local revenue challenges could mean extensive reductions to a local transit service.
Since 1996, the town of Oro Valley has operated the needs-based transit service Coyote Run. Today, the service appears on the verge of losing nearly $190,000 of its $1.2 million annual budget.
"I think we'll be OK for the rest of the fiscal year," said Oro Valley Mayor Paul Loomis. "Next fiscal year will be a challenge."
The road to the cuts, which amount to 15 percent of the service's spending plan, lead to the Arizona Legislature, where lawmakers last week passed a slew of bills to finalize the state's long-unresolved budget.
One of those bills, HB 2012, authorized the transfer of state lottery funding for Local Transportation Assistance Funds to the state's general fund. The transfers total an estimated $33 million.
The potential cuts come as Coyote Run has made cutbacks and reductions in service over the past year.
Riders of the local transit system, who include senior citizens and those who qualify under the Americans with Disabilities Act, have seen longer wait times to schedule rides and an increased number of passengers turned down because of staffing cutbacks.
About two years ago, Coyote Run averaged more than 80 riders per day. Today, the transit service moves about 65 passengers per day.
"I can say that we've turned away people every day this month," said Aimee Ramsey, Oro Valley's transit administrator.
She said Coyote Run, which used to provide same-day service, encourages passengers to schedule at least 48 hours in advance, but said most people have begun to give at least a week's notice.
The transit service has more than 1,200 registered riders. Passengers must be Oro Valley residents.
"The demand has not diminished, our capacity to carry them has," Ramsey said.
In an effort to meet demand while not sacrificing service, town officials initiated a volunteer program to help staff the transit service. Since its inauguration last July, volunteer drivers have contributed an average of 71 hours per month. Volunteer hours have varied from month to month, with as many as 107 hours one month and as few as 40 in another.
"The volunteer system seems to be working," Ramsey said, adding that some residents have donated an inordinate amount of time to help.
Between July 2009 and February 2010, volunteers have donated a total of 525 hours, which has saved the town $8,562 in personnel costs.
Coyote Run has eight full-time employees, down from the 10 approved in the current budget year. Several volunteer drivers augment the service, but the numbers of volunteers fluctuate often.
The town should try to encourage more volunteerism to staff Coyote Run, or simply scrap it all together, one observer believes. Oro Valley resident John Musolf wants to see the town move away from providing the transit service, at least how it's currently operated.
"I consider public transit to be discretionary," Musolf said. He said the transit system is not one of the core services the town needs to provide, as compared with public safety.
Musolf said the town could look to outsource the service to a private firm, or partner with a non-profit group that would be paid to manage transit service.
"I'm not against having it subsidized, I'm against having it a permanent part of the government structure," he said.
In fact, Musolf said, he volunteers his own time to help drive the needy and elderly through Interfaith Community Services. The Northwest-based charity has a network of volunteers who donate time driving ICS clients to and from doctor's appointments, shopping and other places.
Musolf said he agrees that ADA-qualifying residents likely would still need some support from a town-run service. In fact, federal law requires that local governments provide some type of transit service for the disabled that at least moves them to and from locations of fixed public transportation points.
About 9 percent of Coyote Run riders are ADA certified, according to town officials.
What savings, if any, outsourcing or partnering with outside charities would provide has not been examined, but the proposition could prove more appealing in light of the recent state cutbacks.
"You're going to see widespread 'going out of business' signs on transit operations," according to Bryan Jungwirth, president of the Arizona Transit Association.
Jungwirth questions whether non-profits and charities would be able to take up where government-run transit systems have left off.
"How many volunteers are there out there that have the time to take people to the doctor or to get groceries?" he said.
Jungwirth said Phoenix has instituted several volunteer programs, including taxi reimbursements and other subsidies, but won't be able to make up the $11 million in service cuts as result of the legislature's action.
"All of the sudden, you've taken away the beneficiaries of the lottery," Jungwirth said. "It will create severe hardships throughout Arizona."
Mayor Loomis said one answer to the potential loss of local transit funding, not just in Oro Valley but also around Southern Arizona, would be to consider a regional system operated by the Regional Transportation Authority.
He said such a system would likely be less expensive to run than Coyote Run currently costs.
"Ultimately, I think that's what we should be doing," Loomis said. "This will certainly accelerate the review and need for action."
By the numbers
1,386 Monthly passenger trips
$47,583.40 Monthly operating costs
$4,739.67 Monthly fare box proceeds
Source: Oro Valley
(Note: Figures come from monthly Coyote Run reports dating from September 2006 to January 2010.)
Coyote Run operates in three zones, one inside town boundaries. In-town travel costs $4 for a round trip. The two zones outside Oro Valley cost more for round trip travel, from $8 to $12.
Where to buy Coyote Run ticket books:
• Bank of The West,
1171 E. Rancho Vistoso Blvd.
• Fry's Food and Drug,
10661 N. Oracle Road and
10450 N. La Cañada Drive
12122 N. Rancho Vistoso Blvd.
• Wal-Mart Neighborhood Center,
Oracle and Magee roads