Up In Smoke - The path of our transit funds

by Chuck Bergson, Councilmember, City of Williams

One cannot help but notice the passenger vans of the Colusa County Transportation Commission driving around the County and that these vans are practically empty, practically all the time. For years citizens have joked about these empty vans and their waste of public funds. The unfortunate truth is that this is not a joke; these vans carry little to no passengers and operate on lots of taxes.

The Transportation Commission’s vans carry an average of 4 passengers - that is 4 people in a 19 passenger van - at a cost of nearly $1 million a year. These vans have remained this empty and this costly for years.

That is what was reported in March to the Colusa County Transportation Commission in its Colusa County Short Range Transit Plan and was approved by the Commission.

Also approved by the Commission at this meeting were the replacement of these empty vans with new empty vans at a cost of over $100,000 each, the practice of the delivery of flowers, and more years of wasting approximately three quarter of a million dollars a year.

It is uncomfortable to report misuse by a government body, however, the size of this waste, its open display, and its continued approval is compelling. These facts are a matter of public record and are hard to ignore.

This is what is on the record - The Colusa County Transportation Commission, through its Colusa County Transit Agency, operates this transit program of five vans five days a week at a cost of nearly $1,000,000 a year.

There are many communities throughout the State that have similar size million dollar local transportation systems. According to the American Public Transportation Association here are what similar transit operations provide in a year with million dollar budgets:

Antelope Valley Transit 381,888 passenger miles

City of Corona 325,127 passenger miles

City of Elk Grove 170,982 passenger miles

City of La Mirada 154,516 passenger miles

Roseville Transit 136,489 passenger miles

Placer County DPW 89,021 passenger miles

City of Lodi 82,542 passenger miles

City of Petaluma 82,345 passenger miles

Colusa County Transit Agency 48,906 passenger miles

(A passenger mile is measure of one person traveling one mile on public transportation)

From, American Public Transportation Association 2017.

As can be seen, typical small transit agencies provide significantly higher service; up to hundreds of thousands of passenger miles a year. Colusa County provides a fraction of what other transit agencies provide with the same budget.

On the average, the County’s vans drive with 15 empty seats. This is a vacancy rate of 79% which equates to over $750,000 a year for empty seats - literally sending our tax dollars up in vehicle smoke. If the Commission converted to cars, it would save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

Similar size counties like Placer County, Nevada County, Shasta County use profit or non-profit organizations to provide their local transit service. These agencies competitively bid their transit service to provide the most efficient use of their transportation dollars. The County Commission does not bid or contract this service.

Another odd fact is that the Commission will pick up and deliver objects other than people - including flowers and drug prescriptions. The Commission says it attempts to coordinate deliveries with passenger rides. Nonetheless, spending public resources delivering flowers is not public policy and is not the reason we pay taxes.

These facts were brought to the Commission’s attention at their March meeting - the annual three quarter million dollar waste, the expensive empty vans, the practice of competitive bidding, the flower deliveries - all of which were dismissed by the Commission and the Plan was approved.

This Colusa County Short Range Transit Plan covers a period of the past seven years. Based on the vacancy rate of their transit, this Plan documents a waste of over $5 million during this period.

The Commission is responsible for road maintenance and is responsible for transportation matters, including transportation connections to other parts of the State. Given the condition of our roads and given that Colusa County is essentially a transit island, there are obvious ways to gainfully use this $5 million. What will happen with the next $5 million of planned waste?

Other questions arise from the Commission’s actions; who are these Commissioners that approve these “empty, costly” vans?, and what is the role of the agencies that allocate the tax funds given to the Commission?

The answers are surprising. The County Commission is comprised of 1 member from the city of Williams, 2 members from the city of Colusa, and 3 members from the Colusa County Board of Supervisors, for a total of 6 members, essentially making the Commission a branch of the County and not independent. As for supervising the allocation of funds, these tax dollars are rendered to the Commission by various departments of the State and the federal governments with little to no supervision. With nominal amount review by the State and federal agencies, the waste and practices of this Commission could have been revealed and corrected millions of dollars ago.

These empty vans are a reflection upon all levels of government, the federal, the State, local governments, and, ultimately, on us; and it is not a good reflection. As the record shows, this issue is not going to be addressed by the Colusa County Transportation Commission. This waste of these public funds needs to be brought to the attention of the State and federal agencies responsible for fund allocation.

As a resident, taxpayer, and public office holder I am only committing to paper the joke that has followed these vans for years. Wasting public funds, millions of public funds, is no joke. How long will it be until we hold the local officials accountable?

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