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Santa Fe Trails may ‘hit the wall’ in 2016

SANTA FE, N.M. — Santa Feans may have places to go and people to see, but in a few years there could be fewer public transportation options to take them there.

As federal funding dwindles, the city’s Santa Fe Trails could be facing a bus shortage by 2016.

“If we don’t have the equipment we need we’ll have to look at what places in the system’s service would be rolled back,” city Transit Division director Jon Bulthuis said.

“Which would be a shame because we’ve seen so much strong growth in ridership. I’d really hate to see us go that way,” he said. Last year the bus system had more than 1 million rider-trips for the first time.

Santa Fe Trails currently operates a fleet of 36 buses. Of those, 22 buses are on the road during the busiest times of the day. The remaining are parked as reserves.

santa fe trails buses

Santa Fe Trails will replace five buses at the end of 2014 with new models already on order – the last of the city’s planned bus purchases. By the middle of 2015, six more buses will need to be replaced, and seven buses are scheduled to go in early 2016.

Altogether, the city’s fleet is expected to shrink to 23 buses by February 2016.

That’s when “we hit the wall, basically,” said Ken Smithson, Santa Fe Trails’ director of operations and maintenance.

“That wipes out our spare ratio. We have no spare buses and that’s not a good situation to be in, and we will have to reduce service unless we can get new buses,” Smithson said.

That means finding a way to bring more buses into the system – or cutting services to accommodate fewer buses.

A good bus system fleet should be at least 25 percent spare buses, Smithson said.

Of Santa Fe Trail’s current fleet, 18 buses were purchased in 2000-2001. Another six were purchased in 2008, four were purchased in 2009, six in 2011 and two in 2012.

A Santa Fe Trails bus waits for riders at the transit center on Sheridan Street Monday. (Jim Thompson/Journal)

A Santa Fe Trails bus waits for riders at the transit center on Sheridan Street Monday. (Jim Thompson/Journal)

Federal money is still trickling into Santa Fe, but at a rate greatly reduced from what was previously considered the norm. Under the Federal Public Transportation Act authorized in 2012, Santa Fe gets a little less than $200,000 a year for two years. In contrast, the city has received between $800,000 and $1 million annually from the federal government in the recent past.

Not only has funding been cut, but the funding formula was changed so that small urban centers like Santa Fe get less money, Bulthuis said.

Santa Fe Trails’ most recent purchases have been heavy-duty buses with a price tag of $450,000 each.

The city isn’t completely without options. The life of the buses slated for retirement over the next few years could be extended, for instance, by replacing their compressed natural gas tanks, which would cost around $40,000 each.

However, it’s a real question as to whether it makes sense to pump significant money into buses that are near, or even past, their useful life, Bulthuis said. Older buses are more expensive to maintain and also put greater demands on maintenance staff.

Another idea is to look at purchasing lighter-duty buses that cost less money but also have a shorter lifespan.

Santa Fe could also use bond money to buy more buses, although it’s still uncertain whether the city will issue bonds for such purposes in the next couple of years.

“This is new territory because we’ve always been so successful in using those federal monies for capital replacement, so we’re going to be at the table now with other capital needs the city has, which is a difficult situation because there aren’t enough funds to go around with everybody,” Bulthuis said.

In the meantime, Bulthuis said he wants to make sure that the city’s elected officials have a grasp of the seriousness of the situation, as does the local congressional delegation, which can be urged to work toward a more generous funding policy.

Even if an influx of money is found, the city may still find itself in a jam. Depending on the type of bus, it can take manufacturers up to 14-18 months to fill an order.

“If you get heavy-duty equipment it does have a long lead time. That’s part of the equation, too, making sure we have orders in time,” Bulthuis said.

Bulthuis said he’s hopeful that Santa Fe’s long-term prospects for federal money will brighten, although be believes the short term is going to be tough.

“It’s not just Santa Fe suffering. All urban areas are suffering across the country. I do think in time there will be some return to a normalized funding stream but it won’t happen quickly, I think,” Bulthuis said.



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