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  • Dylan Anderson

What will Brown Ranch transit look like and how was it impacted by Steamboat’s struggle to fund current service?

Transit plan in the Brown Ranch Annexation Agreement doesn't require additional funding from Steamboat's general fund, but it isn't as robust as some had hoped.

This story is part a reporting series called "Brown Ranch: Explained." New stories in this series will generally be published on Fridays. To get the latest, subscribe to The Morning Bugle Newsletter. 


The Gist: Brown Ranch transit plan includes relocating a current bus stop and a Yellow Line-style micro-transit option.


While the vision for Brown Ranch has long included a robust transit network, the annexation agreement does not promise the level of service the Yampa Valley Housing Authority was initially looking for.


Under the deal voters will consider on March 26, the city will adjust the western edge of bus routes, moving a stop currently by the KOA Campground across U.S. 40 to the entrance of the Brown Ranch. The operating cost increase incurred by moving the stop is considered negligible.


The housing authority will pay for a $1 million bus stop and turnaround somewhere in that area, which is how it would work for any development in the city. That existing city policy is acknowledged in the annexation agreement, saying that YVHA would be responsible for the construction costs of all onsite transit facilities.


Eventually, the Brown Ranch would also get a form of micro-transit similar to the Yellow Line that operates in Steamboat Springs currently. This would be up to two vehicles operating on call for up to 11 hours a day. The city would either operate the service itself or be required to hire a contractor.


This micro-transit is estimated to cost about $400,000 a year and will be paid for entirely by the housing authority through its annual impact per unit payments to the city’s general fund.


(More on the annual impact per unit payments coming soon, but briefly, it is a $1,203 per unit, per year payment from YVHA to the city in perpetuity to offset additional costs for services like transit, police, snowplowing, etc.)


The annexation agreement does not say anything about when this micro-transit would be required to start operating. It does say that YVHA can request a reduction in the level of service if demand doesn’t warrant two vehicles.


The Brown Ranch Annexation Committee was presented a more robust transit plan, but it was almost immediately dismissed because of city’s struggle to fund its current transit operations. That plan would have extended routes all the way to Steamboat II and Silver Spur, and bring new bus service to parts of the city near Downhill Drive in addition to the Brown Ranch.


Because impacts would not be solely at the Brown Ranch, the city (and maybe others) would have needed to shoulder some of the additional costs of that more robust transit. Those costs were $4.5 million for buses and $1.5 million annually to operate the lines.  Increasing service for the city isn’t on the table for the city, as currently Steamboat has often resorted to cutting transit service as costs increase.


Council kept transit service at 2023 levels in the 2024 budget but needed to increase funding for local lines by 29%, from roughly $4.6 million to $6 million.

 

How will the transit plan in the annexation agreement change current operations?


Largely, it won’t. The only change to current transit service outlined in the annexation agreement is moving the western-most stop of routes from near the KOA Campground to the planned entrance of the Brown Ranch across U.S. 40.


The plan doesn’t add another stop, it moves the one from KOA to the entrance of the Brown Ranch, where YVHA will construct a transit stop and bus turnaround.


The annexation agreement is not exceptionally specific with where this transit stop will be, other than saying “the Slate Creek Road entrance to Brown Ranch.” YVHA executive Director Jason Peasley indicated during annexation talks it may end up being a bit further into the Brown Ranch near Neighborhood A.


The annexation agreement also maintains that all operational decisions regarding transit are the discretion of city council and the city’s budgeting process.

 

Will a micro-transit system be enough for Brown Ranch?

 

YVHA has said their public outreach showed a strong desire from the community for Brown Ranch to have robust transit. The housing authority’s Brown Ranch plan seeks to prioritize people over cars broadly and has a goal of providing a transit stop or hub within a half-mile of all homes.


The more robust transit option presented would have had several stops within the Brown Ranch including two bus routes near the Brown Ranch during the winter and one in the summer. In addition to Brown Ranch, this would have added stops along Elk River Road, Downhill Drive, Silver Spur and Steamboat II.


The city estimated this would have required six new buses, which at $750,000 each total $4.5 million. Operationally, the winter route would cost about $772,000 and the summer route $715,000, for an annual cost of about $1.5 million or roughly 25% of what the city is allocating in 2024 for all local routes.


A micro-transit system was not YVHA’s first choice for Brown Ranch transit, but it quickly became the only workable option under the current transit funding landscape.


Steamboat’s current Yellow Zone gets roughly 100 riders per day and Steamboat’s Transit Manager Jonathan Flint describes it as “very popular” with people who are aware that it exists. Flint said if there were more funding available,  

 

Could Brown Ranch get increased transit in the future?

YVHA had sought to include a statement in the annexation agreement that would have required the city to increase transit at Brown Ranch as it increased transit within the city broadly, but the city would not agree to such a commitment.


Council member Joella West, who represented the city on the annexation committee, asserted transit was an issue far bigger than the Brown Ranch and that a statement outlining broader city goals did not belong in the annexation agreement.


“The goal is much bigger than Brown Ranch, so why is there a statement in this document?” West asked during annexation talks in March 2023.


“From our perspective, we just want to make sure that Brown Ranch is included in the city’s goal as part of the city,” YVHA Board President Leah Wood responded at the time.


The annexation agreement does not include a statement regarding the city’s goals for increased transit.

 

How could creation of a Regional Transportation Authority impact the ability to provide transit at Brown Ranch?


While communities in Northwest Colorado including Steamboat are moving toward asking voters for a Regional Transportation Authority in November’s election, it would likely have very little impact on providing transit to Brown Ranch.


An RTA is meant to be focused on regional transportation, not local routes that operate within the jurisdiction of one municipality. Current talk about what could be proposed as part of a Yampa Valley RTA would be focused on regional connections between population centers in the valley, not adding transit within them.


That means a Yampa Valley RTA isn’t going to help Steamboat Springs fund its current local bus network and it won’t help pay for service to the Brown Ranch. It does mean Steamboat would able to off load the cost of its regional bus to Craig to the RTA, which is projected to cost about $525,000 in 2024.


While that freed up funding could theoretically be used to increase service, it will likely be needed to pay for increased costs to provide current levels of service. The city has needed to increase bus driver pay and recruitment efforts to maintain a full staff in addition to increased costs for fuel and parts.


In previous years the city has decreased service to soften the impact of cost increases and Steamboat has never returned to a pre-pandemic level of bus service. To keep current service at the same level it was at last year, City Council needed to allocate significantly more funding to transit in the 2024 budget.


From 2023 to 2024, the cost of transit is projected to increase by 29% for Steamboat’s local routes and by nearly 37% for the regional route to Craig. Overall, Steamboat increased its transit budget by nearly 33% between 2023 and 2024 without increasing service.


Top Photo Caption: A Steamboat Springs Transit Bus drives through downtown. (City of Steamboat Springs/Courtesy)

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