Less than a week after first announcing its decision to shut down, Idaho Falls’ only public bus service will close all routes on Tuesday.
Targhee Regional Public Transportation Authority sent a letter to its staff Monday morning announcing the new final date for all routes run by the bus system. April 30 marks the final day of both the regularly scheduled routes through the city and the non-emergency transit services for riders with disabilities. Tuesday also is the final day of work for nearly all TRPTA drivers and office workers.
“We know that this will place a burden on our staff and the riding public, but the funds are not able to keep up with the costs of operations so any delay will result in a greater loss,” TRPTA board chairman Michael O’Bleness wrote in the letter to the bus service’s employees. “On May 1, all but the necessary staff will be receiving your notice of termination of employment.”
Shortly after sending the letter to TRPTA employees, O’Bleness submitted his letter of resignation as chairman of the board.
The announcement is a major departure from what initially was announced after the board of directors voted to dissolve the agency early last week. At the time, board members had said that TRPTA hoped to continue running normal routes for 30 days and may continue providing complementary para-transit rides for disabled customers for up to 90 days.
The vote to dissolve came as the service faced financial restrictions for failing an audit from the Federal Transit Administration and the Idaho Falls City Council voted to withhold a quarterly payment until the audit was addressed.
O’Bleness said that the timeline for TRPTA closing was accelerated after not hearing about any temporary federal funds to help TRPTA dissolve in the coming weeks, while the agency looked to avoid adding more debt while in operation.
“(Federal Transit Administration) has been providing technical assistance to TRPTA since first being made aware of the agency’s potential closure, and will continue to do so,” an FTA spokesman wrote in response to the announcement.
In emails shared with the Post Register, O’Bleness had proposed two potential timelines for TRPTA’s closing to the board on Sunday afternoon: one where all routes ended on May 1 and one where the fixed routes were ended but the non-emergency medical transportation continued for a limited time. In both cases, necessary staff will be kept on until the paperwork to finish dissolving the agency is completed.
No official board meeting or conversation was held between that time on Sunday and the announcement that TRPTA was closing.
City councilwoman and TRPTA board member Michelle Ziel-Dingman first heard the announcement while on her way to a meeting with the Bonneville Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Idaho Transportation Department to discuss the plans for the agency’s vehicles and buildings. The agency plans to sell all vehicles and buildings after closing, with more than 85 percent of all cost from those going to address its outstanding debt with the Federal Transit Administration and cost to dissolve.
“There wasn’t a person in the room who had dealt with a situation like this before,” Ziel-Dingman said.
She added that while the board had not met to vote on the new timeline, she believed they would have agreed with the decision based on the current financial state of the agency.
Another board member, Bonneville County Commissioner Dave Radford, agreed that borrowing funds to keep the routes open would be a bad idea. He said he is skeptical about getting the county involved with public transit again and that Medicaid patients who use TRPTA for non-emergency medical transportation should be able to get rides from other private providers.
“I think some of the family members of the people that were utilizing TRPTA’s services are going to have to figure out a way to provide transportation for those in need,” he said.
Most of the riders, he said, lived in Idaho Falls, not in outlying areas of Bonneville County. Also, he said, supporting TRPTA hasn’t accumulated any assets for Bonneville County or the other agencies involved, since the vast majority of proceeds from selling the assets off will go back to the FTA.
“It’s real difficult for me to get involved in something like that going forward, knowing what I know now,” he said.
Some of that switchover to other services had already started after the original announcement of the dissolution last week. Medical Transportation Management Inc., the company that organizes all non-emergency rides for Medicaid recipients in Idaho, had already begun referring customers to options in the area other than TRPTA.
Also, Ziel-Dingman said she heard on Friday from a private provider that is interested in running a fixed-route bus system in Idaho Falls. She said she would be working with city staff this week to figure out the next steps and see if there is support on the City Council for discussing the matter further. Ziel-Dingman said she views public transportation as an important service for people who need it and wants the city to be part of the solution, but that it will take time to figure out.
Several drivers with TRPTA told the Post Register that an emergency meeting was called for Monday evening to discuss the sudden closing and provide help in filing unemployment claims with the Idaho Department of Labor.