Public transportation will take a front seat this spring during the city's budget discussions.
The city already invests thousands of dollars in public transportation, but supporters want more.
"It would seem to me that this is a basic need, so people can get to jobs, so they can stay off welfare by getting to work they otherwise would not be able to, so they can make it to medical appointments," said Hilda Enoch, a longtime proponent of public transportation and member of the Kaw Valley Chapter of the Older Women's League. "We want the new city commission to at least open a new chapter in the community."
Lawrence city commissioners will get a chance to do just that this year, as public transportation supporters prepare to ask for an increase in the $163,000 currently dedicated to such services.
Six community organizations have scheduled a forum to discuss the possibilities Wednesday afternoon -- the same day commissioners will sit down at city hall to talk about plans for their 1996 budget.
Commissioners generally support the concept of public transportation; the only catching point is the cost and scope of such services.
Currently, the city finances Douglas County Area Transportation -- a network and coordinating office for van rides scheduled by appointment. The system has operated at capacity since opening a year ago, and serves low-income, elderly and disabled riders, who pay $1 for each one-way trip.
So far, only a handful of general-public riders have paid the $5 fare for such rides.
Commissioner John Nalbandian said he would wait to see official results before deciding what to do, but emphasized that public transportation should not be intended to serve the general public.
The city has an obligation to help low-income residents who don't have cars, he said, but not to throw money into a bus system that would do nothing but breed inefficiency.
"To me, it's a social service," Nalbandian said. "A full-blown public transportation system would literally cost millions of dollars, and I don't care if that's federal money, state money or local money. It's all tax money, and you can't spend that money efficiently."
Commissioner Jo Andersen maintains that fixed-route bus systems can be efficient -- if run as close to capacity as possible. City surveys and coffee-shop discussions all convince her that the ridership will come.
She wants the city to experiment with fixed-route van service next year.
"People all over town are screaming about it and wanting it, and that indicates to me that they would be using it," Andersen said.
Commissioners Bob Moody and Bonnie Augustine said they hadn't decided what to do about public transportation yet, preferring to wait for formal budget discussions before taking a stand.
Commissioner Allen Levine wants the city and Kansas University to work together to provide a clearinghouse to prevent overlapping transportation services.
Like Andersen, he favors expanding the current coordinated van system, by pumping extra money into the system to finance a few fixed routes, which would allow officials to find out which routes might best be able to operate efficiently.
"I think it's a great idea, and it's something that first-rate cities and communities have," Levine said. "Would you like to try something new, or go with the same time-honored solution of building more roads and bypasses? Why not try something new? It's planning for the future."