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Archive for Sunday, March 23, 1997

PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION ATCROSSROADS

March 23, 1997

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Other university towns have public bus systems available to the general public. Will Lawrence? Next month's election could hold the key.

April 1 is a milepost on the public transportation highway.

For 12 hours that day, Lawrence voters will head to the polls -- on foot or by bicycle, car, truck or city-sponsored van -- and choose three neighbors to serve on the Lawrence City Commission.

In the process, they also will chart a course for public transportation for at least the next two years. In Mayor John Nalbandian's view, three of the candidates favor the city's taking an expanded role in transportation, likely by starting a fixed-route bus system.

Three other candidates aren't yet ready to climb aboard, preferring instead to retain the city's van service for special populations unless a separate public referendum indicates a demand for a new service.

"I think it's very important to see how this election comes out," said Nalbandian, one of two commissioners whose seat is secure until 1999. "There clearly are people here who are advocates of a broader vision of public transportation.

"If they get elected, it will send a strong message. If they aren't elected, that sends a strong message, too."

And today, as Kansas University administrators, KU students and city officials face dozens of planning, development and transportation issues, the tally at the ballot box will go a long way toward driving a process for public transit.

Like other nearby university communities in the past, Lawrence is at a crossroads.

  • Should the city continue financing van rides for elderly, low-income and disabled riders on public vans, or expand and start up a fixed-route bus system?
  • Should the city accept federal grants -- and the restrictions that go with them -- or continue to pass up a potential financing pool worth millions of dollars to establish and maintain transit services?
  • Should the city lend help to the KU on Wheels bus system that currently faces budget shortfalls, decreased ridership and curtailed services, or allow the university -- the city's biggest employer and user of city services -- to continue with its own plans for campus shuttles, a restricted Jayhawk Boulevard and construction of a 1,000-lot parking garage on the edge of campus?

The answers remain elusive, but the issues are not.

Apartment complexes continue their migration further from the urban core, driving up costs for the outstretched campus bus system.

Downtown businesses complain about a lack of parking, and city officials are considering building a $4 million garage downtown.

The city's subsidized door-to-door van system, with rides scheduled up to a day in advance, hits capacity as quickly as hours and vans are added.

A growing city continues pouring more traffic on all streets, requiring street widenings, new traffic signals and even condemnations of residential properties to make way for the increased load.

Public transportation -- whatever form it takes -- fits into each question and topic somewhere. But the central issue remains which way to go, if at all.

Lawrence city commissioners will be the ones making the call sometime after they are sworn in April 8.

"I think the biggest issue is whether we're going to view public transportation as a social service -- a service for those who do not have adequate transportation -- or if we're going to see it as an alternative to using private cars," Nalbandian said.

"That's the biggest question that needs to be decided, and a lot hinges on that. The routes are different. Whether you even have fixed routes is different. How much money you want to spend is different."

And the views about each are different, depending where you are.

Two comparable communities -- Ames, Iowa, and Columbia, Mo. -- already have been there. Each university community provides bus services, using money from the federal government to help defray costs.

Their systems offer both a beacon of hope for transit supporters and a warning signal for opponents.

Cooperation key in Ames

In the heart of Iowa, a town of 48,000 people boasts one of the most successful and envied transit systems in the United States.

CyRide, a partnership of Iowa State University administrators, students and city officials, provides coordinated transportation access to all.

Of the 2.6 million rides provided by CyRide last year, 90 percent were taken by ISU students and staffers. The remainder were split throughout town, usually focusing on lower-income residential areas, shopping hubs and governmental centers such as downtown's city hall, library and post office.

CyRide didn't sprout from a public vote, said Bob Bourne, who runs the system. Community leaders got together, decided a need must be met and forged a lasting and efficient partnership.

Asking the public to approve a referendum for starting up a bus system certainly would be the movement's death knell in any community, he said. It'd be like voting to start welfare.

Estimates for operating a new system in Lawrence range from $1 million to $3 million a year.

"That's an easy way to kill something," Bourne said. "There's a big difference between saying you can't do it and you can do it. That's a big difference.

"If you want it, you can do it. You just have to do it."

Ames already has reaped the benefits.

Traffic has diminished on city streets, bringing less pressure for expansions and new road construction.

City residents generally support the system, too.

At least 62 percent of Ames households had at least one person who rode the bus at least once a week last year, according to a city survey. Eight percent said they rode buses more than 10 times a week.

Only 3 percent said fares were too high, the survey said, and only 5 percent of Ames residents wanted the city to reduce spending for its bus system this year. Only the library, street maintenance, fire protection and snow removal fared better.

"You can always count on it," said Dana Berry, an ISU senior who owns a car but rides the bus to class. "Especially when it's cold or it snows. As opposed to digging out your car, it's great."

CyRide also rewarded Ames with an All-American City Award in 1982-83, a coveted recognition for citizen action, effective organization and community improvement.

Students grab rides to Ames High School, or even junior highs and elementary schools, by taking advantage of reduced fares. ISU officials replace parking lots on campus with much-needed new buildings.

"There were no blueprints that you could copy," said Ann Campbell, who headed the system's formation and later won a seat on the city council. "We were forging new territory, and I think it has worked out extraordinarily well. Obviously the lion's share of the rides are students, but it's made my life better, even if I don't ride the bus."

That's because there's less smoke, less congestion and less demand for parking in town, even if many people remain tied to their cars. CyRide may be entrenched, but it's not a cure-all.

"We're not going to get rid of cars in this community, but you can look at it this way: If we didn't have it, there would probably be 2.5 million people behind the wheel," Campbell said. "That's a lot of traffic."

There also are challenges, and unforeseen costs.

CyRide absorbs $3.2 million a year, much of it from ISU student fees -- $17 per student, per semester -- and city property taxes. The owner of a $100,000 home in Ames pays $30 a year for the transit system.

That compares to $129 for police protection, $75 for the library, $70 for fire protection and $47 for parks and recreation. CyRide is an investment in togetherness, said Steven Schainker, Ames city manager.

"It's a source of pride for the community," Schainker said. "It's innovative. We take pride in that."

It also tore up miles of city streets.

When CyRide officials started buying new buses in the 1980s, little did they know that loaded-down buses would crush local streets.

So far, the city's spent more than $5 million rebuilding the roads in residential areas, and has another $2.5 million ready to spend through the turn of the century.

"We didn't expect that," Schainker said. "It's not like a garbage truck. These were riding the same routes every 30 minutes of every day."

High costs in Columbia

Not everyone can aspire to run a CyRide. Just ask Greg Montour, who runs the Columbia Area Transit System (CATS).

"Ames has a Cadillac system," said Montour, who should know. He drove a bus there as a student and later was an assistant manager for CyRide before taking over CATS.

"We're closer to a Chevy or a Pontiac type system -- kind of a working bus system. They have a system with all the bells and whistles. They are the model everyone should strive for, but not everyone can do it."

In Columbia, Montour and other officials are working to rebuild their own system after years of cutbacks.

Like CyRide, CATS assumed the role left behind by a private bus company that no longer could turn a profit.

CATS powered up 40-seat buses, but ran unfocused routes with little supervision. Ridership suffered in the 1980s, when conservative city council members slashed operating budgets and service in half.

Back then, Helen Cason remembers buses breaking down twice a week, leaving her to wait for other buses to be sent out. Drivers essentially ran the system with little control or administration from city hall.

"They were never on time," she said, "but now you can count on them."

Cason does, five times a week. She spends 50 cents a day to ride up to the Mark Twain Residence Hall at the University of Missouri, where she works as a cook.

She doesn't own a car.

"You can't beat that," she said. "Without the bus, I'd have to quit my job. There would be no way to get there."

The ride costs Cason 50 cents, but it costs the system much more. Mayor Darwin Hindman said each passenger's ride costs $4.80, leaving a full $4.30 to be made up by city sales taxes, state and federal grants and the $330,000 shuttle service financed by MU.

Hindman wants to extend service -- to bring buses to each stop every 10 minutes -- but he knows there's little tolerance in town for increased taxes.

"If we go farther, we'll be reaching the elasticity of acceptance," said Hindman, an attorney.

As in Lawrence, he said, Columbia faces several topics that directly affect transit efficiency.

The 2,000-car garage MU has undertaken will free up spaces for people driving cars, and likely reduce the demand for transit services.

Unlike in Ames -- where bike racks are more common on campus than parking spaces -- Columbia's populace obviously has yet to embrace the bus as a viable alternative to the automobile.

It's simply too easy to find a parking space.

"In the long run, the real secret is convenience," Hindman said. "And to have more convenience, you need to have more buses. And that costs money."

Nicholas Hayes, a 19-year-old music buff, prefers to drive his gas-guzzling Olds Ninety-Eight around town, even with a bus stop near his house.

"It's just too irregular," said Hayes, whose friends live outside the system's five-route area. "It's fine if you want to go the high school, downtown or the mall, but anywhere else it's a pain. It's a lot easier to drive."

Caution reigns in Lawrence

High cost. Inefficiencies. Limited service. A community's overwhelming reliance on cars.

All are enough to caution Bonnie Augustine, a Lawrence city commissioner expected to become mayor next month. She likes the sound of public transportation but is less positive about the reality.

"It's a warm-and-fuzzy kind of thing," she said. "And it does sound great, but once you get into the numbers, it's not the same."

The consultants she and fellow commissioners hired last year have completed their work, and found that Lawrence has several options for transit. They range from retaining the city's current van service -- which coordinates door-to-door rides focusing on people who are elderly, low-income or disabled -- or crank up a full-blown bus system in cooperation with KU, at a deficit of about $3 million a year.

Augustine knows that a bus system could cut down on traffic, reduce environmentally harmful auto emissions, provide employees transportation to and from work and improve access to shopping, office and governmental areas.

But that may not be enough.

"It comes down to cost-benefit," Augustine said. "I don't see how having a bus system will eliminate the need for more roads, or wider roads. I don't see that public transportation will replace those needs. Those needs will still be there, no matter what we do."

Five city commissioners, the elected officials who weigh the public's needs against spending available public dollars, will be the ones gauging public sentiment and charting the course for action.

Commissioners are expected to accept public comment and discuss the issue April 22.

But before that -- on Election Day -- three commissioners will be elected to take seats alongside Nalbandian and Augustine.

In recent weeks, three candidates -- Marty Kennedy, Erv Hodges and incumbent Commissioner Bob Moody, the top three finishers in last month's primary -- generally have favored the idea of taking the issue to a public vote.

The three other candidates -- Lisa Blair, incumbent Commissioner Jo Andersen and Alan Black -- generally have favored a more proactive approach. Blair's ex-husband, Cliff Blair, coordinates the city's current van service; Andersen has pushed for expanded transportation throughout her four years on the commission; and Black, a KU professor, has written a textbook about planning urban transit systems.

Nalbandian, who doesn't favor having a referendum on the issue, would prefer that the April 1 election settle the matter. Or at least indicate the community's leanings.

"If there's this huge groundswell of support for public transportation, and for spending the money it's going to take, it takes a get-out-the-vote effort," Nalbandian said. "Get it in, get the candidates in.

"If you feel strongly enough about this issue, then get out the vote and elect your candidates. What I don't want to hear after the election is that this vote wasn't important. This election is not irrelevant on this issue."

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