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Free Ride?

Ridership is flat. Funding is low. Accounting is a mess. And Dave Bieter wants to expand transit?

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If you ever fancied a tour of Boise on a Valley Ride Transit bus, you might have joined a large group of wannabes. You could have been alone on the bus. You might have gotten a free ride. But like many other potential regulars on the system, you might have trouble thinking of a reason to ride the bus again.

With finances that auditors describe as murky and a fleet of buses that often run without passengers, the Treasure Valley's biggest bus system is on shaky footing. And even though managers say they are retooling the books and designing better routes, the Treasure Valley's transit system needs help. Meanwhile, Mayor Dave Bieter says he wants Boise to move toward new transit options, including downtown trolleys and, ultimately, some form of light rail. Some city officials are wondering if Valley Ride is ready.

"Personally, I'm looking at ridership," said Boise City Councilor Jim Tibbs, who sits on the Valley Regional Transit Board. "Before anybody starts talking about a light rail system, you'd better start getting some butts in seats on the bus first."

Problems surfaced first in 2005, when an in-depth audit of Valley Regional Transit uncovered financial reporting practices that didn't exactly go by the book and, in some cases, didn't even conform to basic bookkeeping standards. The independent audit submitted in April of 2005 described financial mismanagement that included a lack of timekeeping records, inventory reports or written procedures. Bus managers say they recently fixed what auditors called "material weakness" and "reportable conditions" but Boise city officials say there's more to be done.

Valley Regional Transit (VRT) needs to demonstrate that it can live within its means, said Bieter spokesman Michael Zuzel. Without that, lawmakers and the public will be unlikely to send money their way.

More riders would also add dollars to the bus budget. But VRT managers admit that limited resources have created a basic problem: Commuters don't see the bus as a viable transit option because they don't find many buses that take them where they need to go when they need to go.

"You have a chicken and egg problem," Zuzel said.

When a California accounting firm went through Valley Ride's books last year, their analysis found almost no tracking of basic business issues. The 2005 Financial Management Oversight Review yielded few written procedures, precious few inventories and little documentation of money in and money out. Without a good tracking of Valley Ride timekeeping, jobs were getting done (or not done) without documentation. Accounts receivable and payable were hard to follow.

Kelli Fairless, executive director of Valley Ride, says the organization recently corrected the problems identified in the audit. Many of the flaws identified in the audit, Fairless said, were easily addressed by fixing some kinks in VRT's new accounting system. The audit, the most detailed review of five regularly scheduled financial reports in 2005, was intended to test the new system, Fairless said.

"We all went into that knowing there would be problems, because we were working with a brand new system," she said. Between November 2002 and April 2003, Valley Regional Transit operated under the City of Boise's financial system. In January 2003, VRT began the setup and installation of its own accounting system. For a while, however, both systems intermingled while they left the old and started the new.

"It was like living in a house while remodeling it," Fairless said.

In a letter addressed to the Federal Transit Administration in response to the audit, Fairless said, "VRT staff has experienced many challenges in setting up the . . . system to meet our needs, specifically in budgeting and accounting for planning labor and indirect costs." Fairless assured FTA officials that the problems could be corrected through an approved budget plan. Fairless said a new asset management system was set up earlier this month and auditors will be back June 12 to see that VRT corrected the other problems. A more recent VRT annual audit found no "material weakness," Fairless said.

While VRT managers cleaned up their act, they invited the public to ride the bus for free during the month of May. It might not be the answer to the transit system's lack of funding or ease the strain they'll feel when federal grants dry up later this year, but it might get more people on the bus. The grants, from the Federal Transit Administration and other agencies, get harder to find, ironically, as a city grows. With Boise jumping over the 200,000 mark on population, Tibbs said, some grants are harder to get.

"Financially, I don't think it's good news," Tibbs said. "They're trying to provide the best service they can on a shoestring budget."

Anecdotally, the free rides worked, Fairless said. Drivers reported more commuters took the bus in May. A marketing plan and newly revamped schedules could add to those numbers, bus officials said. In addition, four customer service phone operators are now helping riders decipher route information six days a week.

"We have very stable customer service now," said Mark Carnopis, community relations manager of VRT. "It's really been a godsend for us."

But free rides and slick marketing plans still can't turn people into bus riders if the bus route doesn't go anywhere near their point A or point B.

"As the area continues to grow so fast, the transportation doesn't keep up with it," said Grant Jones, a former manager of Valley Ride. "People want to see more changes, more actual things you can put your hands on in terms of public transportation."

Taking multiple buses to get somewhere is enough to turn some would-be commuters away, Jones said.

Since 2000, ridership has essentially flattened and until last October, buses operated on a 1996 route structure. Fairless said it may be a year before they know if a new route system, which would concentrate buses in busy routes, will boost ridership.

Officials are looking for more funding sources and the Coalition for Public Transportation, a partner organization with VRT, is investigating whether local taxes could fund public transportation.

"We've really seen a turnaround in people's willingness to fund public transportation," Fairless said.

If Boise tries to convince voters, legislators or state budget writers that it is ready for another jump in transit technology--and costs--Fairless had better be right.

"If the existing system could be the best it could be it would be easier to convince [people] that other public transportation should come online," Jones said.

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