Tony Lavele Jefferson Jr talks with another rider aboard a Mountain Metro Transit bus in Colorado Springs Monday, December 3, 2018. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

COLORADO SPRINGS — Anthony Jefferson Jr. returned to Colorado Springs after three tours in Iraq hoping to put the long, drawn-out war behind him. But when his car broke down, he found himself engaged in the more subtle battles of being a transit-dependent veteran living in the poorest part of the city.

Jefferson quickly found out that he was on one of 14 of 27 Mountain Metropolitan Transit routes running only once an hour. Any delay could cause him to miss his connection at the Citadel Mall transfer station. And missing a transfer could mean arriving an hour late to work, or missing hard-to-get appointments at the Veterans Administration hospital on the other side of town.

“Unless you tell them to hold a bus for you, it won’t happen,” Jefferson complains. “Sometimes even if you tell them, it probably won’t happen.”  

Jefferson has become a vocal advocate for a better public transit in a city that kept growing even as tax revenue that supports the bus system declined. Today, Colorado Springs’ public transportation system is inadequate to get people — especially those living in the poorest neighborhoods — to their jobs, medical care and grocery stores, advocates say.

Jefferson has attended many Colorado Springs City Council meetings to protest the dismal public transportation system, and as a consequence, the state of the southeast part of the city in general.

“I’d pick a random bus rider to go to a meeting with me and we’d interrupt the meeting to talk about the transit system,” Jefferson said. But, he says, “nothing ever changes. Since the money resides in other communities we never really get heard.”

A Mountain Metro Transit bus heads north on South Academy Boulevard in Colorado Springs on December 3, 2018. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Poor transportation is a“public health crisis”

Now covering about 200 square miles, Colorado Springs’ growth occurred after the 1950s, with subdivisions built around roads ending in cul-de-sacs rather than connecting to the historic gridded street system of downtown and the Old North End.

A city built for privately owned transportation, without many thru-streets, creates what CityMetric and the University of Texas-Austin Urban Information Lab define as a transit desert, “an area where there is relatively high demand for transportation but a relatively low supply of transportation.”

About 10.1 percent of Colorado Springs’ population has an unmet transportation need, according to research by the Urban Information Lab. Compare that to just 1.5 percent in Denver.

The researchers found the highest concentrations of supply versus unmet need in the northeast and southeastern quadrants of Colorado Springs. But the economic differences in those two parts of the city are striking.

Approximately 69 percent of the city’s more than 475,000 residents identify as white, non-Hispanic. About 17 percent of Colorado Springs residents are Hispanic and 6 percent of the population is black. The highest concentration of the non-white population lives in southeast Colorado Springs.

A 2017 El Paso County Health Department study found the highest levels of poverty in the city also are in the southeast quadrant, where in some areas 46 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line. It also found the lowest life expectancy on the southeast side, where residents like Jefferson are expected to live up to 16 fewer years than people living in northern neighborhoods, where as many as 90 percent of residents are out of poverty.

Patience Kabwasa is Director of Programs for Colorado Springs Food Rescue and many of her clients rely on Mountain Metro Transit to get around. She was photographed at her office on December 3, 2018. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Public transportation in Colorado Springs is much more than a transit issue — it is a part of a public health crisis, said Patience Kabwasa, director of programs at the nonprofit Colorado Springs Food Rescue.

Access to fresh food is a key to good health. Ideally, public transportation should fill the gap in connecting citizens to resources, but Mountain Metro is overburdened by a rapid population growth — the city’s population increased by nearly 75,000 from 2008 to 2018 — and a slow recovery from the Great Recession. As a result, Colorado Springs is tied with Oklahoma City as the worst food deserts in the country, according to an analysis this spring of WalkScore, Census and other data by Redfin economists.

Jefferson works for a moving company, which gives him particularly keen insight into the access people living in other parts of Colorado Springs have to basic necessities as well as the city’s amenities. Garden of the Gods, Cheyenne Canyon, Red Rocks Open Space, three of the most popular parks in the city, are on the west side of town — a difficult distance for him to cover by bus and on foot.

“The area of town with the most growth is the northeast portion of town,” Jefferson explains. “They have restaurants, parks, walking trails, entertainment, access to fresh food, and everything else that the southeast portion just doesn’t have.”

Commercial and residential developers have identified more opportunities for large infill projects in the northeast part of the city, compared with the central and southern neighborhoods, where sites are typically smaller, city planners say.

From January 2017 through June 2018, Colorado Springs’ building department issued issued 3,339 residential permits, 2,111 of which were in the north, and 566 commercial building permits were issued, , 247 of which were in the northern parts of the city.  During the same period, the department processed entitlements — which can be anything from a zone change to a new development plan — for about 10,100 acres of land to the north, city spokeswoman Kim Melchor said.

Where 7-Eleven is the only food source in walking distance 

Kabwasa said some neighborhoods in the southeast part of the city have only 7-Eleven stores within a 1-mile radius, the distance considered a reasonable walk for groceries.

“When you’re having to traverse that either back and forth by the bus or back and forth by foot what you’re able to travel with on that route home becomes a real challenge, ” said Kabwasa, who leads a team of volunteers who distribute donated food to people who are in need.

Lugging home a bag of vegetables becomes unappealing.  Fresh foods are sacrificed for heavily processed, shelf-stable foods to minimize the number of trips to the store required to feed a family.

This is what happened to Sarah Josephson, 44, when her car broke down in 2016 and she began trying to find her way around the city on the bus to go to work and medical appointments, and shop for food.

She said she was unable to buy fresh food when she had to walk nearly a mile to the closest grocery store in her northeast Colorado Springs neighborhood. She stopped baking because the ingredients were too heavy to carry.

“What I ended up buying was a lot of dried goods, like pasta and dried macaroni and cheese,” she said, “things that were easy to transport, that I could put in my backpack.”

Mayor reluctant to fund expansion in tax hike-shy city

The outlook for Mountain Metro was optimistic right up until 2010, when bus service was slashed 50 percent due to sales tax collection declines during the Great Recession. The bus system had added weekday and evening service, and service on some routes was increased to run every 15 to 30 minutes.

Some of the workforce found itself stranded in transit deserts compounded by a sharp uptick in urban sprawl. The already struggling southeast quadrant of Colorado Springs took the greatest hit.

Now the city is faced with figuring out how to get the bus system back on track, which may require asking voters for a tax hike — a tall order generally, but especially in Colorado Springs, which is the only Colorado city to adopt a version of the statewide tax-limiting TABOR provisions into its own charter.

“There are some people who say ‘transit doesn’t pay for itself, so we shouldn’t have it,’” said Jill Gaebler, the city councilwoman who represents District 5 in the east-central part of Colorado Springs.

It’s hard enough to convince voters. But even when city council wants to fund transit, the mayor is less inclined to do so, Gaebler said.

“In our last budget we added some funds — that were not recommended by the mayor — to enhance one route,” Gabler explains. “I think that is something that we will continue to focus on if the mayor doesn’t.”

Mayor John Suthers says he’s reluctant to push against market forces.

“I don’t think we impose on people something that doesn’t have a market base,” he said. “What you have you understand about transit in Colorado Springs — we don’t have any discretionary riders. We don’t have a bunch of people out there saying ‘Oh, I want bus transit downtown.’

“Sixty percent of our riders ride our bus system because they have to to get to work,” he said. “Forty percent of our riders go to school — they have to ride it to get to school. That’s the demand that we’re meeting.”

Suthers says that’s because Colorado Springs hasn’t yet felt the downsides of urbanization. People can still secure parking downtown for $30 a month — a bargain compared to Denver — and while traffic might seem heavier to longtime residents, most still only travel about 15-20 minutes to get to work, he said.

“When urbanization causes more people to say ‘Oh my gosh, it’s such a pain in the butt to drive to work, the freeways are so crowded’ or ‘It’’s so expensive to park downtown, I want more buses,’ then the market will respond. Just running around with a bunch of empty buses, that doesn’t do anybody any good.”

Bus riders Monday, December 3, 2018, at Mountain Metro Transit’s Citadel Transfer Station. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Ridership is on the rise

Since 2005, the Colorado Springs region has had a tax-collecting district, the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority, that collects a 1 percent sales tax to fund transportation projects of all kinds, including highway improvements. The district covers about 41 percent of Mountain Metro’s budget, which was funded at about $6.1 million for 2018, up from $4.1 million in 2016. About 26 percent of the total comes from the city’s general fund, 17 percent from rider fares, and 16 percent from federal grants.

“It’s more sales tax than anything,” Mountain Metro’s director Craig Blewitt said.  

Although ridership has been on the rise, topping 3 million trips in 2017 for the first time since 2009, bus service is down 10 percent from where it was in 2008. The current plan to improve the system is to focus on existing services before attempting to develop new routes. Mountain Metro has worked to rebuild its service and focus on the areas of greatest need, increasing the frequency of routes and adding back evening and weekend service. Mountain Metro has increased service hours since 2010, and added 107 more operating days.

City council now has to decide how support the current system while luring more people to ride the bus — and not just those who have no other choices.

“Should we provide OK service for 200 square miles or should we decide to really provide some service to most areas, but really focus on a more robust service for a part of a city so that we can really start to grow those choice riders?” Gaebler wondered.  

The city decided to work on the center of the system, including downtown, to generate revenue from the people themselves in the form of fares.

“It’s tough,” she says, “because you are not going to get folks who can afford to drive to ride the bus unless it’s convenient for them.”

Even so, funding will come up short and Gaebler believes the city has to get creative in finding the money to expand Mountain Metro’s reach even considering a $209,562 increase in the transit budget for 2019.

“Unfortunately, building a more robust system while focusing on the core is going to happen through private partnerships,” Gaebler said. She cites the upcoming partnership with Penrose hospital, a major employer, that will connect riders with both health care and jobs. She also supports connecting the airport to the city.  

“It is completely unheard of that a city of our size does not provide transit from our airport to our core,” she said. “It is embarrassing.”

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