CYMPO moves toward renewed public transit effort

PRESCOTT - Over the past 12 years, the Prescott area has given back more than $10 million in federal money that could have gone toward a regional public transit system.

Because the quad-city area does not have a regional transit system, the money that the Federal Transit Authority allocates to the area regularly goes back to the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT), which redistributes the Prescott money to other small Arizona communities.

The result: The transit systems in communities such as Flagstaff, Yuma, and Avondale have benefited from Prescott's lack of a system.

That could change, however, under a new push by the area's regional transportation-planning group to partner with a private firm to get a public transit system up and running within its member communities.

On Wednesday, July 29, the Central Yavapai Metropolitan Planning Organization (CYMPO) Executive Board voted to direct its staff to pursue a request for proposals (RFP) for a public-private partnership on public transit.

The effort will differ from a similar, but unsuccessful, RFP in 2011, in that it would require less match money from the private company, and would not be limited to a two-year pilot program.

Chris Bridges, administrator for CYMPO, noted that the area's federal allocation of transit grant money for the past three years has totaled about $1.2 million per year. Prior to that, he said the annual amount averaged about $750,000.

"Essentially, since the MPO (metropolitan planning organization) was formed in 2003, we've been giving that money back," Bridges said.

Over the years, a number of roadblocks have emerged in CYMPO's effort toward a public bus system.

Chief among them was the hundreds of thousands of dollars in local match money that would be required for use of the federal grant. Even though studies have consistently shown a need for transit in the area, local governments have previously declined to take on the match responsibility - in part, because of the recent economic downturn.

In 2011, CYMPO appeared on the verge of contracting with local non-profit Prescott Transit Authority for a comprehensive public transit system. But after a closed-door executive session in April 2011, the CYMPO board turned down the proposal, citing concerns about liability and para-transit (services to the handicapped).

This week, local transit advocates again stressed the need for a regular bus route in the CYMPO area (Prescott, Prescott Valley, Chino Valley, and Dewey-Humboldt).

Dee Skipton of the Goodwill Career Center, said she faces a daily challenge regarding transportation. "Our mission at Goodwill is to put people to work, and I can't do that, because they can't get to their jobs," Skipton said.

Long-time local transit advocate Lindsay Bell also emphasized the need for a system. Noting that she had been involved in 12 transit studies in the past 25 years, Bell said, "I'm sitting here thinking, alternately, 'please,' and a jaded 'are we doing the same things over again?'" Bell told the CYMPO board.

She questioned the RFP plan that would put the match responsibility on a private firm. "The match has been the thorniest problem all along," Bell said. "I think we have to have some kind of government involvement with the match."

Steve Silvernale of Prescott Transit Authority also voiced concerns about the plan. "Public transit is a black hole that sucks up money," he said, noting that he melds the costs for his company's CitiBus into the other businesses he runs. Even so, Silvernale called the renewed RFP idea a "move in the right direction."

Ron Romley, the board chairman for Yavapai Regional Transit, also expressed support for the regional transit effort.

"The whole point is that transit is desperately needed," said Romley, who along with his wife Cheri, has worked on a largely volunteer system for transit between Chino Valley and Prescott. The group is also starting a route to Prescott Valley on Fridays, beginning July 31.

Ron and Cheri Romley both told the CYMPO board that its effort could be blended with a larger regional transit system.

While the 2011 RPF generated only one proposal (from Prescott Transit Authority), Bridges pointed out that more than 10 companies had initially shown interest. Feedback from the companies about why they did not follow through indicated concerns with the amount of the match, as well as the two-year pilot aspect of the RFP.

Under Bridges' preliminary proposal, the match would be decreased to about $160,000, and the two-year pilot aspect would go away. "In essence, we could have a $1 million transit system at no government cost," Bridges told the CYMPO board.

The next step will involve acquiring transit-planning money from ADOT, Bridges said. If the project proceeds as planned, he said, "We could have the RFP out by this time next year."

Follow Cindy Barks on Twitter @Cindy_Barks. Reach her at 928-642-0951.