Concern growing over possible bus service cuts in Washoe

Jan 15, 2015

Mark Tadder has relied on bus service more and more over the past few years as his vision has failed.

People in Washoe County who struggle to get around town could have an even harder time if bus routes are cut, which could happen if the transportation commission can't find more money. Reno Public Radio's Michelle Bliss reports.

Mark Tadder lives just a quick walk from a bus stop in northwest Reno, and that’s no accident.

“I started riding the bus in earnest about a year ago when my vision failed and I wasn’t really able to walk so much and get around that way.”

Tadder has known since he was 12 that he would lose his eyesight to a genetic retinal disease. He didn’t know when exactly, but now that he’s just shy of 50, it’s a reality.

“People want to contribute to society. They don’t want to sit in their house and feel as if they’re—I wouldn’t say a drain—but just not contributing. They want to get out and have a job, have a purpose, meet with friends.”

For Tadder and thousands of others, riding the bus is a lifeline, one that could be severed if the Regional Transportation Commission can’t find fresh sources of revenue. Without a new plan, the agency will have to start cutting roughly $4.5 million from its service offerings each year.

"There's no way that we could make that level of service reduction without affecting just about everyone who uses our system."

That's David Jickling, the transit operations director. He says the projected cuts would reduce routes and limit service. For the past several years, the RTC has had a shortfall each year of about $1.5 million, but there’s always been something to fall back on.

"Through the tough times we've been having since 2008 or so we've been having to draw down on those reserves to keep current levels of service on the street. And as we project forward, by 2019, we're not going to have any more reserves, so we've got to do something."

In an effort to "do something," the RTC has organized a blue ribbon committee of community leaders to brainstorm ideas. Most of their options will face significant hurdles, like needing voter approval or legislative action in the upcoming session. Committee member Tim Ruffin is with the commercial real estate firm Colliers International. He says it's a complex issue with no silver bullet.

“You could increase the cost of ridership, but then ridership falls off because a lot of them are low income people. Could you add something to property taxes? Perhaps, and that would be more broad-based. Could you change the distribution of who pays sales tax to services—that’s a possibility.”

That last option is a possible service tax that would need legislative approval. Tray Abney is with the Reno Sparks Chamber of Commerce.

“The idea is this: In 1955, Nevada instituted our first sales tax on goods and we were a 70 percent goods-based economy then. We are now a 70 percent service-based economy. And so, while in the fifties we taxed 70 percent of our economy, we’re only taxing thirty percent of it now.”

Another idea being kicked around is taking the sales tax revenue that currently goes to road projects—more than $4 million a year and a quarter of the agency’s budget for that. The change would need an OK from the RTC Board and it would go against what voters originally approved the money for.

No matter what happens, Tim Ruffin says the agency needs to make some tough decisions about how far the buses will go.

“You just can’t service everybody. You can’t let somebody move up to Spanish Springs and then say, ‘Send public transportation up to pick me up.’”

Mark Tadder, the blind bus rider from earlier in this story, disagrees.

“That’s a great theory. The problem is people wind up needing the transit after they’ve moved into a place like that. It’s not an option when you’re $150,000 under water. You know, you can’t just pick up and move downtown, especially if you’re on a fixed income.”

With so much uncertainty, Tadder has formed a coalition to create new transportation options for people like him. He’ll be working with nonprofits to make sure nobody gets left without a ride.