Sixty two buses, 60 drivers, 9,000 square miles: What happens when the demand for public transit in rural Colorado exceeds supply?
July 31, 2018
Fort Morgan, CO — Sherry Jean Burrell lives in a small, clapboard home amid the corn fields amid the plains amid the vastness of northeastern Colorado. It’s about seven miles to the Walmart in Fort Morgan, and about eight to the town center. Brush is about two miles to the east.
Were you to divide the number of people in Morgan County by the number of square miles, you’d come up with about 22 people co-existing among the farms and ranches, the oil and gas operations, the meatpacking plant, the sugar beet processing plant, the cheese factory and the dairies that supply it. But most people live in town and the rest, like Burrell, are scattered. This elbow room has suited Burrell fine. She is living in her childhood home. It is not hard to summon the images of her mother at the stove, and, on summer nights, she can fall asleep to the rustle of corn stalks in the breeze.
Burrell was a waitress most of her working life, legs taking her where she needed to go, car taking her where her legs couldn’t. A few years ago, when she was in her late 60s, she developed lymphedema. Her legs and feet have swelled to the point that she can no longer drive. She needs special shoes, a walker, a wheelchair. She cannot fit into her daughter’s Toyota.
“It’s frustrating and very disheartening, you know,” Burrell says. “It’s like I lost my freedom, basically. Before I could go wherever I wanted and needed to.” Her voice drops, barely audible. “And now, I can’t.”
Burrell turned to the County Express, which, thanks to federal and state transit funding, Medicaid reimbursements, paying customers, and other donations, runs 62 shuttle buses and vans through the six counties that make up the northeastern corner of Colorado. Three bus hubs and a fixed-route line in Sterling cover a little more than 9,000 square miles.
It used to be that Burrell could call County Express, book an appointment for the following day to the grocery store or to go into town for lunch. A visit to her lymphedema specialist in Greeley took a little more planning, but it was doable. County Express would pick her up in one of the shuttle buses with a wheelchair lift. Sometimes there were other passengers. Most times there were not.
But, over the last couple years, the wait time has stretched from 24 hours to two days to three days to a week. Greater demand. Not enough buses. Not enough drivers. New management with a more strict adherence to the bottom line. Over time, the bottom line has demanded the gas-guzzling shuttle buses be sidelined during the summer when fuel prices are higher. Burrell came to dread the vans, which are harder for her to climb in and out of and tougher to ride because the seats are higher and deeper, with less room for her swollen legs.
“We can’t accommodate you,” has become a common refrain from dispatch, she says. One time, say Burrell and her daughter, Anita Webster, Burrell had to go to the hospital in Brush and when she called County Express for a ride home, they couldn’t schedule her in and so she stayed and waited an extra two days in the hospital until they could. Another time, Burrell says, she was feeling poorly and tried to schedule another ride to the hospital, but the wait would have been so long that she instead called for an ambulance.
“What is she supposed to do? County Express is her only means of transportation,” says Webster, who lives with her mom.
It got to the point that Webster says she told her mom’s doctor, part in jest, part in anger, that since the Brush hospital was only a couple miles down the road, maybe she should just tie her mom in her wheelchair and tow her behind the car.
Most debates about public transportation follow a particular line of thinking: Mass transit in Colorado is about buses and light rail, and buses and light rail are about cities. They’re about moving many people shorter distances on fixed routes and with circulator shuttles. It is not uncommon for the thinking to take on a partisan tint: Democratic lawmakers, often city-dwellers, want more money for transit, for bike lanes, for walkways and paths — multiple modes of getting around that are, in sum, referred to as “multimodal.” Republican lawmakers, often representing rural Coloradans, want more money for roads and sometimes scoff at an expectation that public tax dollars should be subsidizing how people get around. The debate over how money should be spent is reduced to a zero-sum game. This framing leaves rural public transit the odd man out – something that functions as public transit, but doesn’t look like it does in the cities and often isn’t thought of as such in rural communities.
Aaron Lopez, director of the South Central Council of Governments’ public transit, which runs 18 buses and vans through Las Animas and Huerfano counties in southern Colorado, tells the story of an advertising agency looking to put placards on the side of the transit service’s vans and shuttles. “They call Trinidad to ask about it and the city says, ‘There is no public transit here,’ and I was like, ‘Come on! We have a city councilman on our board.’”
Ensuring that public transit serves rural as well as urban communities “is a fight we have been fighting for a long time,” says Ann Rajewski, co-executive director of the Colorado Association of Transit Agencies [CASTA]. She notes that a rural lawmaker once told her his mother takes a bus to the senior citizen lunch site, “and I said, ‘That’s public transit.’ They don’t necessarily think of it that way, but that’s what it is. It’s a really important piece of what transit looks like in Colorado that a lot of people don’t recognize.”
In fact, Colorado logged 14 million rural transit trips in 2016, more than in any other state, according to National Transit Database numbers culled by CASTA. (Rural is defined as all territory outside the state’s five metro planning areas of Fort Collins, Denver, Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Grand Junction.)
David Krutsinger, director of the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Division of Transit and Rail divides rural Colorado into two types. The first is rural, recreation towns, where about half the ridership is seniors or people with disabilities and the other half is hitting the shops or the slopes or going back and forth to service industry jobs. The second type is more remote and without the tax base of recreational towns. Again, about half of riders are elderly or have a disability or other medical needs, and the rest need to get to an urban center for groceries, jobs, meal sites, recreation, errands.
“A place like La Junta or Las Animas, they barely have doctors in their own towns and if you need anything more than ‘Open your mouth and say, ah,’ you have to go to Pueblo,” he says.
The County Express’s most frequent passengers are students going to and from school out of Yuma and people going to and from medical appointments. In May, a little more than four in 10 passengers were elderly and/or disabled.
The blind spot around rural public transit has something to do with the simple fact that people relate to what they’re used to seeing, Krutsinger says, and in cities you see buses everywhere. But history also skewed the picture. The first federal agency created in 1964 to address public transportation was called the Urban Mass Transportation Authority. “So, there’s a historical bias we are outgrowing,” he says. “It’s been over a 50-year period that people said, ‘Hey, we need transit out here in rural communities.’”
The challenge of public transit in remote, rural Colorado is obvious in the vastness of the landscape and the “windshield time” required to get from one place to another. It’s obvious in the scattered population, which rules out fixed-route lines and makes transit inherently inefficient: one van picking up one rider for a single trip. It’s obvious in lean county budgets where it’s hard to scrape together the necessary 50 percent match for federal transit dollars and where county administrators are wary of the strings attached to that money.
The story reveals itself in the numbers.
Washington County is one of the Eastern Plains communities served by County Express. Its county seat, Akron, is just under two hours northeast of Denver. In May, County Express logged 78 trips and 78 riders there. One passenger per ride. Total miles traveled: 2,790, or an average of about 36 miles per trip. Morgan County, where the wait times are most acute, logged 1,489 trips in May with 1,534 riders who traveled a total of 16,019 miles. The U.S. is 2,680 miles across.
Hope Krause lives on Fort Morgan’s south side. She’s 44 and has been using a wheelchair since was two years old and diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Her electric wheelchair doesn’t fit into her boyfriend’s car. So she’s been a fairly frequent user of County Express, which costs $3 per one-way trip in town. Medicaid covers medical trips and up to two personal round trips per week.
Krause, a volunteer advocate for the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, says she finds the current wait times so frustrating that many days lately, weather permitting, she just heads out on her chair into town. It takes her 20 minutes to get to the bank, which is where she was going in April when her chair got stuck in the railroad tracks that separate her neighborhood from downtown. As a passerby struggled to free her, she says, “I look up and see the lights of the train and think, ‘I’m going to die right here with a perfect stranger.’” Two railroad workers appeared out of nowhere, she says, and wrenched her chair loose. It was such a close call, she says she felt the rush of air on the back of her neck when the train passed.
When Krause tells the story, she gets angry all over again. Her indignation comes in part from the summoning of a traumatic memory. But it is also because she feels, as Sherry Jean Burrell does, that it is no coincidence nor mere stroke of bad luck that a bus service serving a largely lower-income community of elderly and disabled riders is a bus service without enough money or manpower. As she waits longer and longer for buses to come, she hears a message, and that message is, “You do not matter.”
“I still have a life,” Krause says, eyes watering, voice defiant. “My legs don’t work, but my head works just fine.”
Ken Mooney is well-acquainted with Burrell and Krause and others who’ve complained about the service. He has run County Express for the Northeast Colorado Association of Local Governments [NECALG] for the last three years with the brisk demeanor of the former sailor and police officer he once was. “It’s not like we don’t try to accommodate people,” he says. “We do. But when we’re maxed out, we’re maxed out.”
Too many people, too spread out, need a ride. He doesn’t have enough shuttle buses or vans to whittle wait times down when many of the trips involve only one rider who may live many miles away and is traveling many miles further. He has had a harder time hiring enough drivers lately. NECALG pays $11.25 an hour starting salary, but unemployment in the county is down to about 2 percent. Right now, Mooney says, the local school district is advertising for drivers at $15 an hour and “how do you compete with that?”
Rural public transit requires creativity, frugality, flexibility. So, in south central Colorado, Lopez started using more compressed natural gas, which costs $1.88 a gallon, to fuel his fleet. In the northeast part of the state, Mooney says he has two employees, one a part-time bus driver, the other a supervisor, take on some repair work because he doesn’t have a maintenance facility and doesn’t want to pay a garage to change the oil or the windshield wipers. He sidelines the shuttle buses during the summer because they only get seven miles to the gallon. “With things like that we are trying to dwindle the budget so we can have more operating money, where maybe I can buy another vehicle,” he says.
Yes, he says, wait times – particularly for the out-of-town runs – can hit two weeks. Yes, sometimes a bus can shuttle someone to Greeley or Fort Collins or Denver, but can’t get them back because that bus can’t be out of circulation that long. Sometimes dispatch can group rides to out-of-town doctor visits, but only if one passenger is willing to wait for another to finish up an appointment, and that’s not an easy thing to do when passengers are old and frail and not feeling well.
The kind of transit County Express provides, known as demand-response or “call and ride,” “is very tricky to coordinate,” says CASTA’s Rajewski.
“It’s not just them. It’s all over the state,” she says. “It is just hard to do more efficiently than they already are.”
The six counties NECALG serves lie in a solidly red swath of Colorado where registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats more than three-to-one. And, yet, in Logan County, Sterling voters in 2007 approved the creation of a transportation authority and an increase in the sales tax to pay for a fixed-route line called the Prairie Express, a sister to the County Express. The campaign for the bus line included not just the regional transportation district, but local ministries, human services agencies, the junior college, county commission, the local economic development corporation, the regional medical center, the Chamber of Commerce and the state Department of Corrections, which has a facility in Sterling. And, when the transit-dedicated tax increase was due to sunset in 2011, voters agreed overwhelmingly to continue paying it without any sunset provision.
Running an efficient transit system that’s not constantly at risk of going broke is not an easy proposition out here, but Mooney, himself a Republican, says no one has ever argued with him that maybe it’s not the government’s job to send a van out miles from nowhere and shuttle a senior to the doctor’s office. But that’s not to say that people might not think it, he says.
“Technically it’s probably not the job of government, but what is to be done for people like Sherry Jean, she lives in her childhood home, doesn’t she, and for all those who didn’t choose to move out here, but who grew up and spent their lives here?” Mooney says.
“We don’t have any problem forking over money to people on welfare who don’t work, so why isn’t it the government’s responsibility to help those who worked their whole lives, who provided for us in past years? Do we just give up on them? They don’t get anything? If we are not going to provide for them, then we shouldn’t be providing for people who can work.”
The whole situation frustrates Chris Pribble, who works just down the hall from Mooney. A former nurse, she runs a Medicaid program with the sole purpose of providing support services to allow people like Burrell and Krause — both program participants — to live at home. Doing so is not only less expensive than taxpayer-subsidized assisted living or nursing facilities, she says, it is also often better for senior citizens’ physical and emotional health. The program serves anywhere from 600 to 1,000 people a year in northeastern Colorado’s six-county area. She points to the title of her brochure: “Freedom to choose.” For those living on a fixed income, with no other option to get to town, that freedom, she says, is dependent upon reliable, regular public transit. Without it, there are only longer waits between grocery visits, and even more laborious back-and-forth phone calls to coordinate doctor appointments and bus availability. There is only further isolation and frustration and the absurdity of “we can get you there, but we can’t get you back.”
“It’s just cruel, that’s really what it is,” Pribble says.
Finding a way to cut the wait time from two weeks to two days, extending weekday service to weekends, would “make a huge difference in people’s lives,” says Bob Held, who runs the northeastern government association’s Area Agency on Aging. “It would give them access to a movie, a concert in the park. They’d be exercising. They can have social lives. They are not getting depressed. You kill people off every day because of isolation and depression … And I know some will people say, ‘Well, they chose to live out there.’ Well, who can afford to live in the city anymore? They can’t.”
The gray and the green
The need is only going to grow. In a state with a skyrocketing population, the fastest-growing segment is among those 65 and older. According to the state demographer’s office, between 2010 and 2015, Colorado’s growth in its 65-plus population was third-fastest in the U.S. That same report notes that since 2000, Colorado’s 65-plus population growth rate has outpaced the total state population growth rate — “the first time this has happened in Colorado’s history!”
The greatest contributor to this growth, the report says, is that Colorado had a smaller percentage of older residents than other states to begin with. Many of those who migrated here in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘’90s are now growing old.
The northeastern and Eastern Plains are not exempt from this pattern. CDOT’s Eastern Transportation Planning Region, which includes nearly all of NECALG’s service area plus a few more counties, said in its 2015 plan that the region’s annual growth rate is expected to surpass the state’s annual growth rate through 2040, with much of that growth concentrated in Logan and Elbert counties. Again, people 65 and older will make up the fastest-growing segment in the region. But these areas are also seeing an influx of refugees from Front Range cities where housing prices and rents are increasingly out of reach. A new three-bedroom, three-bath home in Wiggins, just outside Fort Morgan, can be had for less than $300,000 – a bargain compared to Front Range prices.
Held says that in his five years as head of the Area Agency on Aging, the demand for bus tickets has increased more than 100 percent from $20,000 a year worth of Medicaid-reimbursable tickets to $45,000 a year.
The rapid growth of the 65-plus population plus Colorado’s many years-long failure to adequately pay for transportation and transit needs have created a storm that social, human service and transit providers long have seen coming. Various strategies for dealing with it can be found in multiple online reports dating back at least a decade.
There is simply not enough state funding to provide the level of transit service the region requires, the Eastern Transportation Planning Region’s 2015 report said. What residents want and the region needs includes bus service connecting city to city along I-70 and I-76, local public transit bike facilities, which could be anything from bike racks to wider shoulders, pedestrian improvements and an on-demand van service “for elderly, disabled, and other residents to access health care and social opportunities.”
“It is just going to get more difficult,” CDOT’s Krutsinger says. And there’s more to it than demographics. Colorado’s new minimum wage law requires annual increases until $12 an hour is reached by January 2020. Higher salaries mean higher operating costs. Something has to give, Krutsinger says, and that something usually means cutting service or moving drivers from full-time with benefits to part-time without.
He and his transit team have been traveling the state visiting Colorado’s 10 rural transportation planning regions to develop of master list of needed transit, bike and pedestrian projects for some of the several hundred million dollars approved by the state legislature earlier this year. But the listmaking is also happening in anticipation that this fall Colorado voters will choose to pay more in sales taxes for transportation and transit projects.
The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce is leading a coalition of groups that want to see more money go into transportation and multimodal for a variety of economic, environmental, health and human services reasons. The coalition is now gathering signatures to put its proposal on the November ballot.
Should the measure make the ballot and pass, most of the money would go to transportation projects, but about $103 million a year would be set aside specifically for transit, bike and pedestrian projects. About $30 million would come off the top for larger projects requiring bonding. Two percent of the remaining $70 or so million would go to CDOT for its transit programs, such as the Bustang, CDOT’s swank commuter bus, which it is now expanding into rural Colorado. The rest would be divvied among the cities, counties and their transportation planning districts and, Krutsinger emphasizes, they will determine, based on their lists of transit, bike, and pedestrian needs, how to spend it. The formula for how that money would be distributed is still being discussed.
Lopez says the South Central Transportation Planning Region came up with its list, which, he says, is “pie in the sky now” but he has his fingers crossed. Most of the fleet, a mix of vans and shuttle buses, is old and high in mileage, so vehicles are on the list. He’d like to increase the three-day-a-week run between Trinidad and Pueblo to five days a week. He doesn’t have the wait times that Mooney has, but he also doesn’t serve all parts of Las Animas County and its sprawling 4,475 square miles. So he’d like to open a small garage in Kim, 71 miles east of Trinidad, to start serving that area.
In Fort Morgan, Mooney says if he could buy three more vans and pay people to drive them, he could add at least two more out-of-town runs per day. He says he also has been talking to the city of Fort Morgan about a local ballot measure that would ask local residents for a sales tax increase for a fixed-route service in town. If Sterling voters backed such a measure, he reasons, why not in Fort Morgan? A fixed route in Fort Morgan, with some deviation off that route for curbside service, would free up buses and drivers to travel out-county and wait times would drop, Mooney says.
As Held at the Area Agency on Aging puts it: “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here. We just need the means and the money. We can stretch one dollar to a dollar, seventy-five. We know how to do it.”
Pribble would like to see another company come in and offer service. It’s easier said than done, given that whoever comes in not only needs to have some ADA-accessible vans or buses but also must accept Medicaid. Those two factors limit the rides an existing taxi service in town can offer, and make Uber and Lyft, which are not cheap, a hard sell. Jon Caldara, of Denver’s libertarian Independence Institute, suggests the resurrection of a pilot project launched during the administration of Republican Gov. Bill Owens that would put Medicaid funding directly into the hands of elderly recipients to pay for the services they need, thus eliminating overhead costs. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, acknowledges Caldara, who is pushing a rival transportation funding measure that relies on bonding and has no money for transit. Still, he says, it’s more likely that paying someone from the church to come get you would be more efficient than waiting for a bureaucracy to figure it out.
Seniors deserve the chance to age in their homes as long as they are able, if that’s what they want, Pribble says. Home connects them to a place, a past. Being able to get out and about connects them to a community.
“We don’t look at these issues as a society,” says Pribble. “We don’t think about what it would be like to lose that freedom, what it means to be able to get out rather than be sequestered, to be validated rather than made to feel like you are no longer important so why are you even here; you are just taking up space. We need to value those who came before us. They worked to provide for the generations that followed them. They have given us our past and they are giving us our future as well. And we are responsible for them.”
Sherry Jean Burrell is back in the hospital, struggling with a host of complications of her lymphedema. She’ll soon be released. Her doctor in Greeley says he wants to see her on Aug. 1, her daughter says. County Express, trying to consolidate trips, told her it can’t get Burrell there until the 9th.
This article is written by Tina Griego and originally published on July 27, 2018 in the Colorado Independent.