Money is what makes the wheels on the bus go round and round.
Preliminary findings from a new report looking at merging the city's public transit system with two systems operating at Kansas University were released Monday. The report found that merging the systems in the next two to three years would be a good idea, but it would not create enough savings to significantly expand public transit options in the community without significant amounts of new funding.
"Unfortunately, it just doesn't work that way," said Dan Boyle, the consultant who is studying the system for the city and KU. "It costs more money to run more frequently."
But a merger of the city-operated T system, the student-operated KU on Wheels system and the university-operated park-and-ride bus system does make sense, Boyle said. But he said it probably shouldn't happen right away because there is a host of logistical issues and planning issues to be tackled first.
Instead, the three groups should work on coordinating their routes and making it easier for users to transfer from system to system. After that is completed, the three groups could work on forming a joint board that would manage a combined system. The board - which could be in place by 2009 - would have representation from the city, KU and students. It would report to both KU and the Lawrence City Commission.
But Boyle emphasized that if community members are hoping for major improvements to public transit - such as longer hours or significant numbers of new routes - that will take significant amounts of new funding.
The message was heard by transit leaders who attended a Monday evening meeting about the study.
"There are some services that we could add in a zero-sum game, but that is a pretty short list," said Danny Kaiser, assistant director of parking and transit at KU.
Boyle said that without additional funding, the main route changes that could be made would come at the expense of existing routes. For example, he's recommending that Route 8 on the T system - which runs through KU - be run every 40 minutes instead of every 80 minutes as it is today.
More about public transit
But doing that will mean the loss of one existing route on the system. Boyle is recommending that Routes 1 and 2 on the T system be merged. That would mean some service that goes through the Barker Neighborhood would be eliminated. Residents in that area would be asked to walk a few additional blocks east or west to catch a bus. The new combined route also would run only every 60 minutes instead of every 40 minutes, which is the standard today.
The alternative is to increase funding for the systems. The systems, if combined today, would have a total budget of $4.9 million. Boyle provided one option that would increase the funding by 20 percent over a total of five years. Another more aggressive option would increase it by 33 percent over five years.
Those increases would allow for service on major routes to be extended from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. It also would add four new buses to the KU on Wheels system and increase the frequency of some of the more popular routes in the city.
The funding increases likely would come from a combination of new federal and state dollars that a larger public transit service could attract, and from additional property taxes from city residents and fees from KU students.
Revamping student fees
Boyle specifically is recommending a change in how KU students pay for bus service. Currently, students who want to ride the KU on Wheels system pay $140 for a bus pass, plus every student pays $16 per semester in student fees. Boyle is proposing that KU on Wheels stop selling passes, but that every student would pay about $50 per semester in bus fees. That new fee would entitle every student to ride a bus without paying a fare.
"I think a lot of students who aren't riding today would start riding under that system," Kaiser said. "It would mean more people in buses and fewer people in cars. There would be a lot of benefit to that."
Whether students would accept a large fee increase, though, is an open question. Boyle is making a presentation of the idea at 4 p.m. today in the Pine Room of the Kansas Union.
Boyle also will make a presentation to the Lawrence City Commission at its meeting tonight.
Cliff Galante, the city's director of public transit, said the final report wouldn't be delivered to commissioners until mid-November. He said he hopes it sparks a community discussion about what residents really want in a public transit system.
"At the end of the day, it is going to be a matter of what people can live with and what they are willing to spend," Galante said.