Archive for Sunday, March 23, 1997

HISTORY OF PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION IN LAWRENCE

March 23, 1997

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Ever since a streetcar called "Progress" rolled across the Kansas River bridge in 1871, Lawrence has always had some form of transit.

Lawrence has been down this road before.

Even before the city hired a team of consultants, for $80,000, to study transit alternatives, city officials have been grappling with the prospect of starting a bus system.

Thus far, nobody has climbed aboard.

There always has been another system -- starting with a horse-drawn streetcar more than 125 years ago and the Lawrence Bus Co.'s contract with KU on Wheels today -- to fit the bill.

"As long as there's been that service, there hasn't been the crisis or the public outcry to do something," said Fred Sherman, the city's transportation planner. "If KU on Wheels were to shut down, you might see a different public outlook."

Since 1930, the city has commissioned nine separate public transportation studies.

Today, the latest consultant's report outlines a road map for deciding whether the city should embark on a bus system of its own, or in partnership with Kansas University students or administrators.

City commissioners plan to discuss the issue and hear from the public April 22.

Meanwhile, a report commissioned by the city's planning office details the history of transit in Lawrence. Among the highlights:

  • Currently, KU on Wheels is financed by $1.2 million from KU's Student Senate, which contracts with the Lawrence Bus Co. to provide service to and from campus. The system is not open nor intended for the general public.

After two years with an operating deficit, student senators approved a $2 increase in student fees to help offset the debt, plus provide a $140,000 loan for the system's reserve account.

  • In 1993, commissioners agreed to start a door-to-door van service to focus on elderly, low-income and disabled riders. Original budget: $100,000.
  • In 1992, another city consultant recommended starting a taxi-voucher system, which would subsidize cab rides for elderly, low-income and disabled riders. Commissioners decided against the plan.
  • In 1991, a citizen advocacy group known as the Public Transportation Blueprint Committee devised plans for a bus system tailored to the needs of low-income and elderly residents. That never got off the ground.
  • In 1987, a city-financed Carter Goble Associates Inc. report recommended coordinating paratransit activities among various social service agencies. That became reality in the early '90s.
  • In 1985, commissioners learned that they were eligible to receive $1.6 million a year in federal grants for transportation. Plans to use the money never materialized.
  • In 1982, KU on Wheels coordinator Steve McMurry was convicted of embezzling $257,000 from the system's account. He paid back less than $3,000.
  • In 1977, a consultant's study recommended coordinating the community's transportation elements under a single board. That never happened.
  • In 1971, KU on Wheels took over bus service previously handled privately by the Lawrence Bus Co. The company had not been breaking even since 1968.
  • In 1957, the Lawrence Bus Co. formed to operate privately in Lawrence. Because of the formation, a $150,000 bond issue to create a city system was defeated.
  • In 1935, Rapid Transit Co. operated buses in town through World War II and until 1957, when it closed up shop.
  • In 1909, the Lawrence Electric Light Co. operated electric streetcar trolleys in town. An electric railway soon followed, but was outdone by a reliance on automobiles by 1933.
  • In 1902, the city's first bus -- a nine-passenger steam-powered vehicle -- connected downtown hotels with the train depot in North Lawrence. The puffing monstrosity terrified the public, however, and quickly failed.
  • In 1871, the Lawrence Street Railway Co. started its downtown streetcar, named "Progress," which connected to the train depot in North Lawrence. Service expanded to other areas of town by 1884.

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