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Washoe's public transit stunted by funding woes

Right now, public transit in Washoe County is operating at service levels comparable to the ‘90s, and officials with the Regional Transportation Commission say they only have enough money to keep running as is.

Reno Public Radio’s Michelle Bliss reports that securing funding down the road for expanding services and renovating aging infrastructure remains a major question mark, one that could affect everything from economic development to quality of life.

The Villanova Bus Maintenance Facility in Reno was visionary when it opened—it was built to service seventy buses back when the RTC’s fleet only had seven. But that was more than thirty years ago, and now that there actually are seventy buses, the space is rather tight.

“So as you can see here, the access to this bus is very confined," explains David Carr, the RTC's Fleet and Facilities Manager. "There’s not a whole lot of room on either side, and you know, there’s tripping hazards, there’s things you have to be aware of and it puts an extra degree of caution into what you’re doing.”

Carr is standing in a maintenance bay that’s too small for the agency’s four new electric buses, which are wider, taller, and longer than some of the more dated vehicles. It’s quite a squeeze for the older models as well, presenting safety concerns for his mechanics.

“They’re very, very creative in terms of getting the work done and managing in a confined space," Carr says, "but I don’t think it’s sustainable over the long term because you can see he’s lowering the ramp and that ramp barely goes down in this bay.”

Carr says the facility is quickly becoming obsolete and if the RTC wants to transition to more electric buses, which would cut down fuel costs considerably, the agency needs $9.5 million now for renovations. Carr has applied for a federal grant and he’s waiting to hear back, but RTC Executive Director Lee Gibson says this is just one of many vital projects that are currently unfunded.

“We have millions of dollars of needs in this community," Gibson says, "but what our needs are and what our resources are—there’s a huge gap. And that’s really one of the challenges we’ve got to kind of work through.”

Gibson was speaking at a recent open house to collect input from the disabled and older adults who have asked for more bus routes in areas outside of Reno, like Spanish Springs.

The region as a whole is also relying on more from the RTC so that with ongoing economic development employees can actually get to work. Gibson says the RTC will find a way to offer transit service to the new Tesla site, but he’s unsure of how his agency can support more businesses that move to the area:

“Congress has, for many years now, not implemented a long-term, reliable, growing, stable funding source for transportation.”

Over the summer, Congress did approve a $10.8 billion bill to keep federal transportation dollars flowing into the states, but Senator Dean Heller admits that it’s merely a Band-Aid.

“We just pushed another infrastructure ‘fix,’ and it was a minor fix that went through until May of next year," Heller explains. "We need a long-term solution for this.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid agrees that a sustainable plan is needed but he says it's unlikely to happen anytime soon with the ongoing climate of Congressional gridlock.

“We’re getting nothing done," Reid says. "Nothing. We’re not even doing the basic work of government. We’re not repairing our roads; we’re not building new roads. We’ve got 70,000 deficient bridges in the country.”

Instead of relying on future federal funding that’s not guaranteed, the RTC must be creative if it’s going to thrive. That’s why the agency has formed a Blue Ribbon Committee of community leaders to brainstorm different options before the state legislature kicks off in February.

One option will be asking voters to increase the sales tax by 1/8 of a percent, a ballot measure that did not pass back in 2008.

“We hope that we get some community and leader investment--a core group of people that can help get this message out to our voters," says the RTC's CFO Stephanie Haddock. "[I] hope that they’re going to support a measure going forward. I’m not sure that we did that as well in the last election.”

Haddock says other options may include forming public/private partnerships or proposing legislative action. Right now, the RTC’s 20-year, long-term vision for expanded and improved transit in the region remains unfunded by roughly $175 million. 

Michelle Billman is a former news director at KUNR Public Radio.
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