The Targhee Regional Public Transportation Authority has long seemed balanced on a knife’s edge. This month, it plunged suddenly off.
Starting in February, shortly after the federal government shutdown finally came to an end, it became clear a crisis could be near for TRPTA. The agency was essentially out of cash, its reserves tied up in uncertain investments and its daily operations financed by debt.
Despite the best efforts of many well-intentioned public officials to right the ship, it was simply too far gone.
Faithful TRPTA employees, who had long worked without benefits, remain in the uncertain situation of having their final paychecks — paychecks for work they’ve already performed — delayed until funds come through to pay them. This will have a lasting effect. If the city starts another public transit system, who will want to work for it knowing what happened to prior employees?
The relatively small population of residents, especially the elderly and the disabled, who relied on TRPTA services had the rug pulled out from under them, leaving them scrambling to find ways to obtain groceries or access medical care. Will they put their trust in another public transit system?
The city is seeking public input on what a future public transit system in Idaho Falls should look like. Here are our suggestions.
1. Implement competent management with robust oversight
Several years of federal audits turned up similar failures in the TRPTA’s accounting practices. That should have been a red flag long before the feds took the extraordinary step of freezing grants.
TRPTA tied up nearly all of its cash reserves in investments to improve service, taking the position that customer demand would naturally follow. That should have been a red flag long before it became obvious that the agency’s business model was unsustainable.
TRPTA had taken on many tens of thousands in debt, much of it simply to make payroll. That should have been a red flag long before the agency became insolvent.
But no alarm was raised until it was too late.
Any system can fail, but when a public program collapses suddenly, it indicates that deeper problems have been allowed to fester. If management was effective and oversight was thorough, the problems that led to TRPTA’s failure would have been faced years ago.
There could have been an orderly downsizing. Instead, there’s a mad scramble to raise funds by begging local governments and the feds, while looking to sell off public buildings and vehicles at what are sure to be fire-sale prices.
2. Build in protection against funding risk
While its business model appears to have been fundamentally flawed, what immediately precipitated the demise of TRPTA was running out of cash. Among the major contributors to this cash crunch was the federal government shutdown.
Officials were caught flat-footed. Most of TRPTA’s reserves had already been reinvested in system upgrades, and without federal funds, bank loans and credit cards were the only way to keep the system running.
Unfortunately, incompetence and intransigence remain widespread in Congress, so there’s reason to worry that future government shutdowns will come. So any public transit system will have to have a funding model and sufficient cash reserves to ensure that the next shutdown won’t leave it in a crisis.
3. Build a system tailored to actual, not hypothetical, demand
The “if you build it, they will come” business model did not work in this case, and there’s little reason to believe it would with a future public transit system.
Serious study must be devoted to the existing demand for public transit in Idaho Falls, and any future system should be tailored to meet current demand. This city is a fast-growing one with a solidifying urban core that increasingly houses younger people. There’s reason to believe that demand for public transit will be higher in the future than it is at present. But it isn’t here yet.
The public should fund a transportation system for those without the financial means or physical capability to own a vehicle. Not everyone needs public transportation, but for those who do, it’s essential.
But it makes no sense for taxpayers to send often-empty buses driving around the city.
That is waste, plain and simple — the kind of waste that gives ammunition to those who oppose all government programs.