START bus passes are back on the menu for pass holders at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, though elected officials and the resort want a longer-term deal for funding the program.
“We’re pleased,” Jackson Hole Mountain Resort President Mary Kate Buckley said. “This is the outcome we had desired. This is the outcome we had been planning for.”
Whether the bus pass benefit would be included in the ski pass benefit package had been an open question since March, when Buckley told the Teton County Board of County Commissioners that the resort would not offer the benefit this year because it disagreed with a new formula proposed by the START Board.
But in the months between then and now, the resort and START reached some kind of agreement. Buckley sent a check in April to the Town of Jackson, which administers the joint public transportation agency, but that check was returned. Officials said that happened because the county commissioners and Jackson Town Council had not approved the new funding formula for the bus passes.
On Aug. 17 that changed. The Town Council followed the county commissioners’ lead and upheld START’s recommended formula, though officials on both elected bodies were hesitant to do so. The commission voted 4-1 to support the program, and the council did so 3-2.
The START Board’s proposed formula for the bus passes is new from years past. It would see the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and the town and county splitting the cost of season pass holders’ START
ridership to Teton Village 50-50. All told, that’s about 15% of village ridership. The START Board’s idea behind the split is that there’s a public benefit for getting people on the bus to the village.
“They believe it reduces congestion and traffic, improves air quality, [reduces] emissions, [enhances] sense of community,” START Director Darren Brugmann said. “We felt it fair to approach this process as a partnership and have the government share the cost of the service.”
Under the START Board’s plan, the resort would not be asked to pay its full share of the split this year, instead paying about a quarter of the community benefit, roughly $12,000.
That’s intended as a ramp to future years, when the resort will be asked to pay its full portion. This year, a down year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, that would be about $24,000.
Some derided that 50% cut in Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s fee this year as an unnecessary subsidy.
“This is yet another handout to the biggest corporation in the valley,” Councilor Jim Stanford said. “I just think it’s absurd that we would somehow say that we will cover an extra $12,000.”
He and Mayor Pete Muldoon, who agreed but also wanted to see a community-wide option for employers to buy bulk bus passes for their employees, both voted against the plan. Commissioner Mark Newcomb did the same on the county side, concerned that skiers were getting preferential treatment over commuters, many of whom pay for START bus services outright or split passes with their employers.
“I am concerned that we’re setting up different classes of START bus riders,” Newcomb said during an Aug. 3 county commission meeting.
Some who voted for the proposal also had concerns, but for different reasons.
Commissioner Greg Epstein thought the START Board was better suited to make the decision on the funding formula than elected officials. He thought continuing to offer bus passes for ski pass holders but paying for it differently wasn’t a major deviation from prior operations. He also had other concerns.
“It’s becoming a very political issue,” Epstein said. “The START Board is supposed to make this a little more apolitical.”
The town, county and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort are all looking for a longer-term agreement on bus pass pricing to avoid the hassle of negotiating payments on a yearly basis. But what that will look like remains to be seen.
Buckley said the resort wouldn’t mind something similar to the plan Muldoon proposed.
“We support the mayor’s suggestion that encourages more participation from across the county, which would include town employers,” Buckley said. “We would love a multi-year agreement. We would know our confirmed pricing, so we could communicate it to guests in advance.”
Elected officials signaled that more conversations on the issue will be had.
“I strongly want to send the message that the policy discussion is not completed,” Councilor Arne Jorgensen said. “We do need to have businesses that are benefiting from our public subsidized START system paying a larger share of that benefit.”