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Federal strings help keep empty buses running in Nampa

Federal strings help keep empty buses running in Nampa

Wayne Hoffman
July 15, 2016
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July 15, 2016

If you’re curious about the stranglehold the federal government has on local and state officials, witness the recent turn of events in Nampa, a city with a publicly funded bus service that, according to the government’s official records, people aren’t using. City officials voted just a month ago to cut a sliver of funding for the bus service, hoping to use the money to fund important fire department needs. But the city retreated from the decision after learning, in part, the cut could result in the loss of federal funding.

“When you’re part of a federal project, you’re basically agreeing you’re going to follow the federal rules,” bus system chief Kelli Fairless warned the council.

“We’re kind of held hostage,” Councilman Bruce Skaug complained. “We’re not being given a choice, and I don’t like that.”

The city government had voted to reduce funding by a mere $22,000, attributing the reduction to a system that lacks community support; council members noted they routinely see empty buses traversing the city. The council’s decision was bolstered by a review of ridership data indicating the number of passengers has declined.

According to the official ridership stats, in 2012 the bus system logged 1.4 million passenger trips, or roughly 119,740 a month. By 2014, bus ridership had fallen, still hovering around 1.4 million passenger trips, but about 117,364 a month. In 2015, ridership was down again, to just more than 1.2 million passenger trips and about 103,027 a month.

But Fairless said the public bus system’s official ridership numbers are wrong, though she can’t explain why or what the actual numbers might be.

“We do have bad data. That is an unfortunate thing. I wish I had an answer today,” Fairless said. “The buses aren’t empty. We’re carrying riders.”

Nonetheless, to cope with the city’s proposed $22,000 cut, the bus service would have to eliminate a route, Fairless said, and the city previously agreed to federal grants stipulating a bus route within half a mile of certain federally backed street work.

City Councilman Darl Bruner, along with Skaug and Councilman Paul Raymond tried to maintain their prior ruling.

“Our customers are our taxpayers, and they’re the ones I’m going to protect,” Bruner said. But on a tie-breaking vote by Mayor Bob Henry, the city agreed to restore funding to the bus system.

So now, in short, taxpayers are obligated to fund a bus system that has done a lousy job doing the basic accounting that a bus service ought to do — track ridership. A bus service that doesn’t know its own ridership is like a store that can’t tell you how many customers it has or which products are being purchased. Yet, the threat of loss of federal funding is more important than whether people use the bus service that’s to be funded.

Hopefully, local and state officials are learning a powerful lesson on what it means to be a federal grant recipient, and why going to Washington, D.C., looking for handouts in the form of grants isn’t such a good thing for taxpayers.

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