BRECKENRIDGE - With longtime director John Jones gone, savings depleted and the Summit Stage facing a budget shortfall this year, Summit County may hand off management of the free, tax-funded transit system to a private company.
No decisions have been made, but county officials confirmed Tuesday there have been conversations with First Vehicle Services, the contractor that currently handles the maintenance on all county vehicles.
A request for proposals from other businesses interested in taking over the system's operation could go out by summer.
It is a defining moment for the Stage, which officials say cannot continue to offer the same level of service under its current model.
"We would like to think that if we did (privatize), it would help create a more sustainable system," assistant county manager Thad Noll said. "We cannot keep doing what we're doing for the same amount of money."
Officials say the shift to a private operator would be virtually unnoticeable to riders and no jobs or even pay would be lost in the transition. All current Stage employees would be brought on to work under the private contractor.
But the final decision, which will rest with the Summit Board of County Commissioners, will likely hinge on money and customer service.
Two years ago, facing a recession-induced budget crisis, Summit County government turned over the maintenance of its entire fleet of vehicles to First Vehicle Services to save money.
The move was a test run, and according to county officials a successful one, for the privatization of the Summit Stage as a whole.
"We wanted to test it with the fleet first," Noll said. "But the transit operations are very different. The fleet doesn't have a public face to it, and the Summit Stage is a lot more customer oriented."
He said there will have to be assurance that a private company could continue to offer a high level of customer service and save the system money for a privatization deal to go through.
The high-level orchestration of the Summit Stage operation and routes would remain under the control of the existing transit board and a system director. But the specifics of the transition, if it happens at all, are not yet determined, leaving some involved with the transit system wary of privatization.
"The devil's in the details," Summit Stage board president Kent Willis said. "I'm still concerned about how it all works out and I'm not totally convinced that there is a cost savings there or that it would be better for the system."
Despite assurances that jobs and pay would be maintained, the bus drivers have their problems with the idea as well.
"We're not real impressed with the service the county has gotten from First Vehicle," said Cathy Brosius, a former driver and president of the local driver's union. "We're very concerned that drivers could lose a tremendous amount of money in benefits and we're very concerned about the safe operation of the system."
Many of the older, more experienced drivers who are close to retirement might quit if the system is privatized, and it will be difficult for operators to find good replacements for them, she said.
The county contracted out its fleet maintenance operations out to First Vehicle Services in February 2011, at the same time a department of motor vehicles office was closed in Frisco. At the time, officials said the moves would result in a $700,000 savings in the first year.
But maintenance costs for the Summit Stage increased by more than $250,000 in that first year, from 2011 to 2012.
Noll said the increase resulted from the state of disrepair of the Summit Stage fleet.
"The Summit Stage buses had not been taken care of, so there was so much old maintenance that needed to be done," he said.
The cost of the existing maintenance needs was not covered in the initial contract with First Vehicle Services and therefore had to be charged back later, Noll said.
There are several publicly funded transportation systems in Colorado that are operated by private contractors.