Cliff Galante, the city's public transit administrator
For the first time in its six-year history, the T - the city's bus system - is on pace to see a decline in ridership.
Through June, the city's fixed-route bus system has provided 207,003 rides, which is a 2.7 percent decrease for the same period a year ago.
With gasoline prices still creating pain for motorists, the decline in ridership is a head-scratcher, said Cliff Galante, the city's public transit administrator.
"I don't know exactly what the cause of that is," Galante said.
It is just one of many unanswered questions hanging over the Lawrence Public Transit System these days.
At City Hall, the chief question is how to pay for what is expected to be increasing costs for the transit system in future years, as the entire fleet of buses will need to be replaced and the price the city pays for fuel likely will rise dramatically.
"I think we need to try to keep this system for people who really need it, but I'm really concerned in the out years - 2009, 2010, 2011 - that it could get prohibitively expensive for us," Commissioner Rob Chestnut said.
The solution, Chestnut said, may be a long-discussed merger between the Kansas University transit systems and the T. Chestnut said he would like the city to have a merged system by 2009.
Both Galante and Danny Kaiser, assistant director of parking and transit for KU, said such a timeline could be possible, but it would take a significant acceleration in the pace of talks between the city, KU and student groups. And both executives said they could not guarantee a merger would reduce costs for the city.
In fact, a report commissioned by the city and KU last year concluded that savings likely would not occur as the result of a merger. Consultant Dan Boyle recommended the city spend at least an additional $500,000 per year on public transit to address needs related to aging buses and an inadequate maintenance facility.
New buses needed
The city also currently spends $1.60 per gallon for diesel to fuel its buses, thanks to an operating contract that put a cap on fuel costs to the city. That contract expires at the end of 2008, and the new contract is not expected to have such a fuel cap.
About the same time, the city will need to buy new buses. The city's fleet of 12 buses is expected to reach its mileage limitations at the end of 2008. The city has received enough federal grant money to purchase six new buses, but it does not have funding in place to purchase the remaining six.
City commissioners, however, have been skeptical of the consultant's findings. Several commissioners have said they find it counterintuitive that a merged system wouldn't result in savings.
Kaiser said commissioners need to be careful in discounting the consultant's findings. Kaiser said the consultant recognized some increases in service may be necessary to make a merged system work. Those service increases would cost more money.
"We hired the consultants for a reason," Kaiser said. "I have a hard time saying they're wrong. You know, transit is not inexpensive."
Decline a surprise
Putting more money into the system won't be easy for city commissioners, though. Chestnut said it is particularly difficult given the unexpected decline in ridership. Chestnut said he's reviewed the current numbers and has concluded that the T is providing service to a relatively small group of people on a day-in, day-out basis.
"This is a very expensive program for what we're talking about 600 to 700 people who really ride it on a very consistent basis," Chestnut said.
Galante said he has few explanations for the decline in ridership. The department recently increased fares from 50 cents to 75 cents, but these ridership numbers are for a period preceding the fare increase. Galante said it is likely ridership numbers will sink a little further.
Galante said one explanation could be that after years of posting strong ridership growth - ridership increased 138 percent from the end of 2001 to 2006 - that the T has attracted all the riders it can without improving services, such as longer hours or shorter wait times on routes.
Mill increase expected
Faced with a tight budget, that may not be the direction the City Commission goes. Chestnut said he would be willing to cut the service hours for the T from 8 p.m. to 6 p.m. in an effort to better manage costs while a merger deal is negotiated with KU. Even with the service reduction, it would require a 0.4 mill increase in the 2008 city budget. That's because the city previously was spending fund balance money - the equivalent of a savings account - on the transit service, but that account has now been depleted.
All five city commissioners have expressed strong interest in pursuing a merger with KU. The commissioners, however, have not reached consensus on whether service hours should be cut in the meantime.
"If we're going to change the mindset in the community that the transit system serves more than the transit-dependent, this is the wrong time to cut hours," Mayor Sue Hack said.
KU and The T
Kansas University students who want to ride the T on a regular basis will not receive as steep of a discount as they have in the past.
Cliff Galante, the city's public transit administrator, said a tight budget has caused his department to re-evaluate the KU student discount program.
In the past, KU students who purchased a KU on Wheels Bus Pass for $140 could pay an extra $25 to buy unlimited ridership on the city's T buses. Now the cost of buying unlimited ridership will increase to $50 per semester, or $20 for the summer session.
But Galante said a new discount program will be in place for KU students who don't want to buy the pass, but want to ride a T bus more infrequently. KU students with a valid ID will be allowed to ride the bus for 35 cents.
Whether the changes will have much effect on KU ridership on the T is uncertain. Galante said the discount program had never been as popular with students as expected. He said about 300 KU students per year bought a $25 pass.