KU launching universal-access transit system

Riders board and exit the K-10 Connector bus in the Kansas University-Lawrence Park & Ride lot near Clinton Parkway and Crestline Drive. The K-10 bus offers daily, round-trip rides to Johnson County Community College and KU's Edwards Campus.

All aboard!

When students return to the Kansas University campus for the fall semester, KU transit leaders will be all but shouting the familiar refrain in hopes of attracting new riders to the university’s expanded bus service.

“We’re definitely expecting increased ridership,” said Danny Kaiser, assistant director of KU’s parking and transit department.

The fall semester will mark the launch of a new universal access transit system. Under the new system, students no longer will have to buy a KU on Wheels pass to ride the buses. Instead, they’ll flash their student ID and take a seat.

Kaiser is confident that system will cause more students and faculty to leave their cars at home and rely on the university’s buses to get them from point to point.

The bigger question is whether the Lawrence City Commission is going to figuratively jump on board KU’s transit system as well. Talks to merge the city and university bus systems have reached a new level of seriousness.

Lawrence Mayor Mike Dever has helped negotiate a letter of intent that would have the city and university systems merge by July 1, 2009, if several conditions are met. Approval of a new sales tax or other mechanism for the city to provide its share of funding for a merged system is the biggest hurdle.

“But if the city’s capable of securing the transit system’s financial future, I believe the administration at KU is very willing to seek a merger,” Dever said in June.

University students already have taken a major step in securing the financial future of the KU system. KU students in April approved a new set of student fees to support the system. Every student will pay a $44.90 per semester transit operations fee, and a $20 per semester bus replacement fee.

The new fees have allowed the university and the student leaders who run the KU on Wheels system to eliminate the need for student bus passes.

“We don’t want more people bringing their vehicles near the core of campus,” Kaiser said. “We have a hard time dealing with everything we have now.”

Kaiser said busing students and faculty to the main part of campus is definitely the trend of the future. He said KU leaders don’t have any plans to build more parking garages on the main part of the campus.

Instead, the university is becoming more aggressive in persuading people to use the KU Park and Ride system. The price for a parking permit in the approximately 1,500-space parking lot near Clinton Parkway and Iowa Street has dropped dramatically for the new school year. Kaiser said the permit will cost $90 per year, down from $205 last year, which included a KU on Wheels bus pass.

The lower fees are designed to encourage people to take a second look at the Park and Ride system, which is beginning its third year of operations.

“It has been underutilized,” Kaiser said. “People just don’t understand it. They just think it is going to be inconvenient.”

Kaiser said the university is committed to having buses come through the Park and Ride lot at least every five minutes during the peak times in the morning and afternoons. During nonpeak times, the frequency of buses will drop to 8 to 10 minutes, and will fall to once every 30 minutes during the evening hours.

The university has purchased five 2008-model buses to meet what is expected to be increased demand for transit service from students who no longer have to buy a bus pass.

Future goals

Already, the KU system was by far the busiest transit system in the city. The KU on Wheels system – which runs from campus to apartment complexes and other major destinations in the city – averaged between 130,000 to 135,000 riders per month during the school season. The Park and Ride system added an additional 35,000 on average, Kaiser said.

Those are the type of large numbers the city’s transit system ultimately would like to approach. The city’s T system averaged about 33,000 riders per month in 2007, but ridership decreased for the first time in its history.

That decrease in the face of rising fuel costs has concerned city commissioners. Financial pressures on the city system also have been a major concern. Commissioners have been told the city transit system is facing about a $1 million shortfall in operating funding for 2009.

A merger of the KU and city systems is not expected to eliminate the funding shortfall, but it’s expected to make the two systems more efficient in the long term.

“There would be a lot less waste in the organization,” Dever said. “There won’t be as many buses idling and waiting. It is a great opportunity to retool the system.”