Public transit comparison
Here's a statistical look at three different types of public transit services in the area.
System: The T bus system open to public
2007 ridership: 445,822
Rider fare: $1
Local tax support per ride: $2.92
System: Taxi voucher program for elderly and disabled
2007 ridership: 45,488
Rider fare: $2.50
Local tax support per ride: $6.51
System: Taxi voucher program for low-income seniors and disabled; ATA bus system open to public
2007 ridership: About 31,600
Rider fare: $2 to $4
Local tax support per ride: About $5.25
Note: The Riley County numbers are a combination of city- and county-run transportation programs.
It is classic Lawrence water cooler talk, frequent fodder for morning coffee clubs or big fish in the sea of anonymity known as message boards.
Surely you've heard it: "I bet you could run taxi cabs cheaper than what it costs the city to run the T."
"I know that has been suggested in the community a number of times," said City Commissioner Rob Chestnut. "I can tell you I've gotten a number of e-mails about that one."
City leaders - struggling with how to deal with an estimated $1 million increase in public transit operating costs - may soon set out to determine whether that notion is myth or marvelous.
Chestnut has asked staff members to begin looking at alternatives that could take the place of the city's public transit system if commissioners don't figure out a way to come up with the necessary funding.
A system called a taxi cab voucher program certainly will get a look. City leaders in both Olathe and Manhattan have been teaming up with private taxi companies for years to provide transportation to seniors, the disabled and low-income residents.
Chestnut said the city may have to undergo a philosophical shift when it comes to public transit.
"It may be that we have to go away from the idea of getting huge ridership," Chestnut said.
Instead, the city may want to look at a system that is designed to primarily meet the needs of the truly transient dependent.
But T supporters say now is the wrong time to make such an ideological detour.
"It seems counterintuitive that at the same time energy costs and fuel costs are going through the roof that we're limiting the alternatives available to people," said David Dunfield, a member of the city's public transit advisory board and a former city commissioner who fought hard to establish the T in 2000.
City leaders in Olathe, though, praise their 31-year-old taxi program. It has been expanded twice and has won national and state awards as an innovative, small-scale public transit system.
And most importantly to budget makers, Olathe spends only $296,000 in local tax dollars to provide the service. Lawrence will spend about $1.3 million in local property tax dollars this year and would need to spend about $2.3 million in local dollars in 2009 to keep the system running at its same level.
"We feel like it has been a program that has been extremely successful over the years," said Kathy Rankin, neighborhood and human services manager for Olathe. "It is providing transportation to people who without this option very possibly would be homebound."
But there is a major difference between the Lawrence and Olathe programs. The Olathe program is not open to everybody. Riders have to qualify to use the service.
Here's how it works: The city has two programs geared toward senior citizens and the disabled. People age 60 or older or those who have a disability can purchase taxi vouchers for the city's general ride program. The vouchers cost $2.50 and can be redeemed at one of two private taxi companies for a one-way ride anywhere in the city. The city limits people to purchasing 20 vouchers per month. Seniors and the disabled also can buy an unlimited number of medical vouchers that allow people to take a taxi cab to a doctor's office or for other medical-related trips.
For low-income residents - defined as people at 80 percent or below the median income as set by Housing and Urban Development - the city offers a job ride program. Low-income residents can purchase an unlimited number of the $2.50 vouchers to use to get to and from work.
Typically, the program provides about 45,000 one-way trips in a year. It is the primary public transit system in Olathe, according to Rankin, who said the Johnson County transit system only has one route in Olathe and it only operates three days per week. The Olathe program receives about $240,000 per year in federal grants.
In Manhattan, the system is similar but smaller. The city spends about $15,000 per year to provide taxi cab vouchers to low-income senior citizens and the disabled, said Bernie Hayen, finance director for Manhattan. The program provides about 10,000 rides per year.
But city residents also rely on a small public transit bus system called the ATA bus. The bus system is open to anyone in Riley County, but people must call 24 hours in advance to schedule a ride. Fares, scheduled to go up in June, will be $2 per one-way trips within Manhattan and $4 for trips outside the city limits.
The service costs Manhattan and Riley County taxpayers about $150,000 per year and receives about $160,000 in federal and state funding. The system provided about 22,000 rides in 2007.