Printed on: January 17, 2013

TRPTA to roll out routes

New fixed routes kick in at beginning of February

By Zach Kyle

The moment of truth is approaching for public transportation in eastern Idaho, or at least its current incarnation, the Targhee Regional Public Transit Authority.

Starting Feb. 4, TRPTA buses will run on fixed routes. For the first time, the white buses with blue lettering will arrive at designated stops at designated times and deliver passengers to destinations on a designated route.

Want to go to the Grand Teton Mall? Jump on at the YMCA or another stop on the Green Line or Shopko or another Red Line stop or any point on the Yellow Line at the north end of town.

Need to catch a flight? Any line will take you to the Wes Deist Aquatic Center, where you can catch the Blue Line to the Idaho Falls Regional Airport.

The fixed routes are a dramatic change for TRPTA, which previously relied on deviating routes in which drivers made stops between picking up riders calling for door-to-door pickups.

Door-to-door service still will be available in Idaho Falls and surrounding areas. But TRPTA's viability in Idaho Falls depends on the success of the fixed routes.

Idaho Falls City Council members vowed to cut TRPTA funding -- budgeted at just less than $100,000 this year -- if TRPTA didn't establish fixed routes and stop hemorrhaging money.

Bonneville County was the second largest government contributor at nearly $33,000.

The council approved TRPTA funding for the first two quarters of the fiscal year, which ends March 31.

Councilman Mike Lehto said TRPTA's third-quarter performance will be key in the city's decision to continue funding.

"If (TRPTA) doesn't demonstrate some sincerity to the fixed route, and they aren't demonstrating some successes in getting their financial house in order, we are throwing our dollars into a bad investment," Lehto said. "We may have to give it some time. But it won't be much time."

Losing Idaho Falls funding would critically wound the authority's ability to service communities and areas from Shelley to Salmon, TRPTA Board Chairman Burke Webster said.

"Once we start cutting services, I don't see an end in sight," Webster said. "(Losing Idaho Falls funding) would have a trickle-down effect, and eventually, we'll spiral out of existence."

Webster and council members know that switching to the fixed-route system demanded by the city does not guarantee healthier TRPTA savings accounts.

Without money for studies and accountants, Webster said TRPTA doesn't know how many riders to expect once buses roll down those fixed routes -- or how many additional riders TRPTA would have to service to break even.

"It's a huge leap of faith for everybody involved," Webster said. "We need the public support and we need people to ride the bus, especially the route bus."

The new business model's lack of details, such as a break-even point, bothers council member Sharon Parry, the latest in the council's revolving door of representatives to the TRPTA board of directors.

Parry wants TRPTA to succeed. But she doesn't think TRPTA has the plans or leadership to be sustainable, and she lobbied against continued TRPTA funding during budget meetings last summer.

"They are flying blind," Parry said. "They are flying absolutely blind."

Part of TRPTA's problem is it's nearly invisible in the city, according to Parry.

The public has no way of knowing the fixed routes are coming, she said.

Not all TRPTA stops have signs. Those that do have small signs not yet color-coded by line.

There's been no marketing or outreach efforts to clue in riders that fixed routes are coming in a few short weeks, she said.

"TRPTA is the best-kept secret in town," Parry said. "I guess they are busy writing grants in their offices because the public perception of TRPTA is lower than that of Congress."

Webster said TRPTA will improve signage by spring.

That's not good enough if TRPTA wants to gain enough riders to succeed, Parry said.

Neither is the fact that the fixed routes don't include stops at University Place, despite TRPTA identifying students as a target demographic to increase ridership.

Will more riders get on board Feb. 4 when TRPTA buses pull up to stops on the new fixed routes?

Lehto said he hopes so. But if they don't, Lehto said TRPTA will fail, and he'll await another transportation system to "arise from the ashes, a new phoenix; the new public transportation system."

"There's been ample opportunities to turn this organization around," Lehto said. "We've just lacked the vision and the leadership, and that's frustrating."

Zach Kyle can be reached at 542-6746.

For more information

To learn more about the Targhee Regional Public Transit Authority and how it was hit hard by changes in Medicaid payments, read the Aug. 16 Post Register article "TRPTA seeks improvements as profits tank" located at seeksimprovements.