The cash-strapped Regional Transportation Commission is looking into ways it can meet the needs of a growing city, including the workforce of big, new and expanding businesses.
“Basically we have way more demand than we have the money or resources to serve,” said LaVonne Brooks, CEO of High Sierra Industries, a Reno non-profit providing learning for the disabled, including employment training.
Brooks is one of more than three dozen community leaders who sit on the RTC’s Blue Ribbon Committee for Transit that has been meeting monthly since last July to assess how best to address unmet public transit needs.
The committee has a tough task. The RTC relies on sales tax for much of its revenue. When that source fell during the recession, the RTC began dipping into a reserve fund to cover its cost. Its sales tax revenue is creeping back up, now at $20 million in 2015, but the rainy day fund it still relies on will be tapped out by 2019.
And that’s just to maintain its existing service — 70 buses on 26 routes serving 25,000 riders — without any cushion to keep up with anticipated growth.
The transportation issue is increasingly important to all kinds of businesses which need a reliable workforce.
“It depends on the type of business, but ecommerce, logistics companies, larger companies that may have a part-time or student workforce, all tend to have a need for public transportation,” said Mike Kazmierski, president and CEO of the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada and a member of the RTC’s blue ribbon committee. “Even technology companies attracting millennials, who don’t like to drive and want options. It’s the mark of a city growing up.”
The blue ribbon committee initially was expected to make recommendations to the RTC board this month, but is still hashing out ideas, according to several members of the committee.
“Is there a consensus about where the routes need to be and what revenue stream we can go to for that?” said Tray Abney, director of government relations at The Chamber in Reno and a member of the committee. “No, not yet.”
But Abney said he thinks there is agreement it’s best to shore up service in the urban core — including routes from downtown Reno to the University of Nevada, Reno and Prater Way in Sparks — rather than spread out too thin in an effort to reach every corner of Washoe County.
As for funding, Lee Gibson, the executive director of the RTC, anticipates the committee could make any of several recommendations to the board.
“The committee is considering going to ballot for money, living within our means, or the third option of moving the 1/16th sales tax now used servicing roads over to transit,” said Gibson.
Most, though, doubt voters would vote to raise funds for transportation after defeating a similar ballot measure in 2008.
Moving the portion of sales tax now used for road service, which is about $4 million, is a decision that can be made by the RTC board, which currently consists of Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve, Reno City Councilwoman Neoma Jardon, Sparks Councilman Ron Smith and Washoe County Commissioners Bob Lucey and Vaughn Hartung.
The RTC is also hoping a bill to ensure highway transportation funds are not diverted to the state’s general fund passes during the current legislative session.
Meanwhile, later this month the board will hear a plan to provide service to the Amazon distribution center which recently relocated from Fernley to Lemmon Valley.
And the RTC is working up a plan to provide a route out to the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center once the Tesla Motors’ battery factory, which is anticipated to employ 6,500 workers, opens up.
“We have a commuter bus to Carson City every day and we’re looking at a similar concept when Tesla opens up and starts ramping up, so that’s probably three years away,” said Gibson.
Gibson says he would like to see the RTC’s Proterra elctric buses, which have performed well, be used in the route to Tesla, but first an electric charging station would need to be istalled at the industrial site.
For now, the RTC offers van pooling through vRide to TRIC, specifically to eBay. The RTC and others have been working to attract more businesses at TRIC and elsewhere to the service, but haven’t been able to expand beyond five employers.
Van pooling comes with tax benefits for bother emploee and employer, says Carol Perry, RTC trip reduction specialist.
“One thing I would love is get more employers to understand power of pooling,” said Perry.