The wheels are turning quickly on an idea to merge the city and university's public transit systems, and to approve a new sales tax that would help support the combined service.
Lawrence city commissioners at their Tuesday meeting will review a proposed letter of intent that calls for efforts to be made to merge the city and Kansas University bus systems by July 1, 2009.
The proposed letter of intent marks a new high point for the on-again-off-again discussion of merging the two systems, participants said.
"This is probably discussion at the most serious level we've ever had on this subject," said Danny Kaiser, assistant director of transit and parking for KU.
The proposed letter of intent puts a lot of emphasis on the city passing a new sales tax that would provide the bus service with a steady stream of revenue.
"I think a sales tax is essential for this to happen," City Commissioner Rob Chestnut said.
Because of rising fuel costs and aging equipment, the city is facing a $1 million shortfall in its public transit budget for 2009. The proposed letter of intent doesn't mandate a new sales tax. KU leaders seem fine with the city raising the property tax rate to come up with the needed money. A majority of city commissioners, though, have been reluctant to do that. Instead, talk has focused on 0.15 percent sales tax to fund transit.
Kaiser said the university has told the city that KU won't be making up the shortfall.
"Everybody has assured each other that no one is bailing the other one out," Kaiser said.
A merged system could result in better transit service for the community, said Mayor Mike Dever, who has been working directly with KU. Dever said he frequently hears from constituents about routes where a KU bus and a city bus almost follow each other.
"It just makes sense to conserve our resources by not duplicating them," Dever said. "I think we'll be able to serve areas more efficiently and have a lot less waste in the organization."
City commissioner Boog Highberger also said he was hopeful that the combined resources of the systems would give riders more route options.
The university system would bring thousands of potential riders to the table, and also would bring a steady stream of university money into the system. Pending final approval from the Kansas Board of Regents, KU students soon will start paying a $44.90-per-semester transit operations fee, and a $20-per-semester bus replacement fee, Kaiser said.
In November, it could be up to city voters to decide how much they're willing to pay for transit service. Chestnut has proposed a 0.15 percent sales tax to fund the city's transit operations. He's also calling for a 0.35 percent sales tax to fund street and infrastructure projects. He wants the two sales taxes to be voted on separately. Dever and Commissioner Sue Hack also have said they favor separate votes.
Highberger and Commissioner Mike Amyx have said they want a single vote on the two issues. Details such as those, and getting agreement on the exact tax rate, have to be worked out before the issue can be put on the ballot.
But Dever said he hopes commissioners will reach agreement soon. He would like the commission to vote to put the issue on the November ballot within the next two weeks.
The proposed letter of intent does give the city an option to back out of the deal if the sales tax is not approved, and it also gives KU the option to back out of the deal if a newly formed Transit Commission doesn't approve of a merger. The Transit Commission will have strong student representation.
The letter of intent also spells out that the day-to-day operations of the transit service would be governed by a new operating board or organization. The details of that new organization would have to be worked out later, but would include student representation, the letter of intent states.