Soon both residents and visitors in the Sandpoint area may be able to park their cars and rely on free public transportation to shuttle them to and from areas in and around Bonner County.
But it all depends upon the results at the polls in the small town of Ponderay on Nov. 2.
“If the Ponderay Resort City Hotel Tax doesn’t pass, this goes away,” said Clif Warren of the Northern Lynx Transit system that is proposed for this area.
Warren is one of six mobility mangers throughout the state, all of whom are employed by the Community Transportation Association.
His job is to promote, coordinate and develop public mobility in Idaho’s five northern counties, with the latest project to link the cities of Ponderay, Kootenai, Sandpoint and Dover through a free public transportation system – a project taken on and driven by the city of Dover.
Currently this area’s only public transportation – in addition to traditional taxi service – is the Northern Idaho Community Express bus which is an on-demand service. There is also American Carriage Transport and White Tail Transportation both of which are Medicaid reimbursable.
The concept of a bus system linking the cities of Dover, Sandpoint, Ponderay and Kootenai is nothing new to this area, although many have not heard about it until recently. In 2006 a transportation committee was formed and ordered a study with funds from the Idaho Transportation Department to see if the area could support such a public transportation system.
After the study was completed a year later, it was determined that the area can support two separate bus routes. In 2007 the Bonner County Area Transportation Team formed a Public Transportation Committee to explore the concept of public transportation.
According to Warren, many will benefit from Northern Lynx Transit including residents, visitors, businesses and the obvious benefits to the environment and economy.
Initially there will be no fee to ride the buses.
“It’s a terrific way to build ridership,” he said. “People will realize the value to public transportation.”
Charging a fee would inevitably add a layer of operating expenses that may or may not be worth it in the future explained Warren.
“It needs to operate two or three years to prove itself and to gain ridership,” he said.
Residents are already getting excited about it. At the recent Chamber of Commerce meeting where Warren addressed questions about the proposed transportation system, a representative from Bonner General Hospital said they have several elderly volunteers who will surely utilize the bus.
The current funding, which is projected to fund operating expenses until 2012, comes predominately from stimulus money of $147,000 received by the city of Dover; $220,000 received from the Idaho Transportation Department’s Job Access and Reserve Commute funds; $30,000 in hotel taxes that the city of Sandpoint already assesses and has earmarked for this project; and $140,000 from Ponderay if the measure passes next week.
But according to Warren if the proposed tax does not pass in Ponderay, the project loses not only the revenue that would generate but also the $220,000 which was match money for the other funds.
“All we will be left with is $87,000 and one bus,” said Warren, who adds that the Ponderay mayor and City Council support the 5 percent tax which affects approximately five area hotels.
And because Warren is sure this will be a huge success, he is already planning for the future.
“We will need to start preparing grant requests this December for 2012,” acknowledged Warren.
Warren said the exact routes are still being decided; but if the measure passes in Ponderay, the buses should be able to operate up to 12 hours per day, seven days a week with additional hours likely on Fridays and Saturdays.
“We have high activity in our community in summer and winter,” said Warren, adding that hotels and restaurants have been tremendously supportive of the proposed bus system. “It will definitely help promote our tourism and recreation in our area.”
With the first bus scheduled to arrive by the end of November, the plan is to begin service as early as December. The second bus will be ordered in January and a second bus service will begin in April. Both buses would be handicapped accessible and equipped with bike racks.
According to Warren, 40 percent of households in Sandpoint have an annual income of less than $30,000 and it is nearly the same percentage for Ponderay and Kootenai. And with the expense of gas and the cost of maintaining a vehicle, this service is sure to be a huge asset to many in the community.
“People cannot afford transportation,” he said, adding that in addition to providing free bus service, Northern Lynx Transit will also provide for about six or seven new jobs in the community.
But he is not counting on anything until the polls close on Election Day.
“This whole thing rides on 60 people walking into the voting booth and voting yes,” said Warren of next week’s vote.