TTD juggles financial problems
Chairman Kevin Cole probably compares the Tahoe Transportation District to a juggler.
The audience applauds when the juggler performs masterfully but they are disappointed when a ball hits the floor.
In TTD’s case, board members grapple with funding different transit projects in the Tahoe Basin while trying to maintain or improve each service. Much to the dismay of transit officials, programs vying for the same dollars are causing a strained relationship among the major players.
“If you’re one of those balls, you don’t feel too secure,” Cole said.
Cole is referring to the “Nifty Fifty” Trolley, one of two programs that is in partial peril due to the district’s belt-tight budget.
Due to the financial constraints, some projects are severely impacted such as the Lake Lapper, the bus system that circles the lake. A two-year demonstration grant from the California Department of Transportation expires in June and since no new long-term funding sources have been found, the Lapper’s service will be dramatically reduced to four days a week, Thursday through Sunday, starting Dec. 1.
The Nifty Fifty Trolleys – busses designed to look like old fashioned streetcars that shuttle passengers across the South Shore – will get its past funding in entirety – $50,000.
The two programs, which most agree are vital to the Tahoe Basin, are competing for essentially the same funds that trickle into the agency’s bank account.
Depending on who you talk to, support varies as does the opinions on the programs. But by the looks of TTD’s 1997-98 budget, it may be a case where the strongest survives.
Trolley backers point to the 72,000 passengers who used the system this summer. Some Lapper proponents say that, if given a couple more years, the Lapper can post better annual figures than it did in its sophomore season.
The TTD promised funding the South Shore Transit Management Association to operate the trolley for two years that have since come and gone.
Dick Powers, director of the transit association, said there wasn’t any provision that prohibited his group from seeking funds annually from the TTD.
It has been contended that the transit association, a private organization, shouldn’t rely on public money. But Powers said the trolley was started by a similar Caltrans grant that helped get the Lake Lapper rolling.
“The condition was that we had to locate other sources to keep the trolley going,” he said. “The same condition was placed on the TTD. We did what we were expected to do.”
Impending dilemmas could hamper transit programs in the future. If the TTD doesn’t fund the trolley, rider fares likely would increase, which may turn off some crowds. Powers added he couldn’t tap any more of the private contributors like Heavenly Ski Resort.
“We have come close to maxing them out,” he said.
The Lapper has already faced cutbacks this winter and if El Dorado County didn’t forgive a $110,000 payment from the district, other services would have suffered.
“We would have had a negative fund balance that wouldn’t have been acceptable to auditors,” said TTD Executive Director Richard Hill.
El Dorado waived the contribution because county supervisors felt the money had been used for a good cause.
The agency is at the bureaucratic mercy of other organizations, state and federal, that are required to give a sliver of their revenues to public entities like the TTD.
TTD board members received a jolt on Nov. 14 when executive director Richard Hill that announced the agency was late on a $85,000 debt to Frontier Tours, which provides the marketing and vehicles for the Lapper.
Stephen Smith, Frontier’s vice president of finance and administration, has been assured that $66,000 and the remainder, which includes billing from October and November, have been locked up. Most of the money was tied up with the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and Caltrans, which owed the district special use fees.
At the next TTD meeting on Dec. 12, the budget will be approved. In the interim, Hill said transit projects will function at the current level-of-service. However, Hill said funding will need to be secured to return the Lapper to peak service during summer.
Hill’s focus now turns to a strategic, five-year plan that paints a long-term picture for the district. The board is reviewing a binder full of goals to build a comprehensive, regional transit system.
“The board hasn’t had a framework with which to plan its future activities,” he said. “The district can develop the ability to deliver funding but the coordination must come from a consensus of those whose interest the funding will best serve.”
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