When the Lawrence Public Transit system began operations on the cold, snow-packed day of Dec. 16, 2000, more than the hum of diesel bus engines was in the air. There were the near-screams of jubilation from supporters who had been lobbying for a public bus system for years.
But there also were murmurs from citizens who questioned whether the city needed or could afford such a system.
For the past two years - as city commissioners have felt the impact of a slowing economy - the volume of the debate has increased.
Tuesday is when the debate turns to decision.
Lawrence voters are being asked to decide the fate of two public transit sales tax questions, and in the process determine the future of the city's bus system.
Here's a look at some of the questions surrounding the sales tax and public transit issues.
Q: How many questions are there? How much is the tax?
A: This sales tax election definitely is different from past sales tax ballots in Lawrence. City voters will be presented with three sales tax questions. Question Nos. 2 and 3 are the ones related to the public transit system.
Question No. 2 is a two-tenths of a percent sales tax for 10 years. That equates to 20 cents for every $100 in taxable purchases made in the city. That tax would be used to fund the basic operations of the city's public transit system. Question No. 3 is a five-hundredths of a percent sales tax. That equates to 5 cents for $100 in taxable purchases made in the city. That tax would be used to fund expanded transit service such as purchasing new buses, adding new routes or increasing the frequency of routes. The smaller tax will take effect only if voters also approve the larger tax.
How much will the taxes generate?
If approved, neither of the taxes would start being charged until April 1. The two-tenths of a percent tax is estimated to generate $1.5 million in 2009, and $2.6 million in its first full year in 2010. The five-hundredths percent tax is estimated to generate $376,000 in 2009, and $657,900 in 2010. Both taxes - just the like the proposed infrastructure tax that is Question No. 1 - would expire after 10 years. The only way the tax could exist beyond 10 years is if voters approve it again as part of a citywide election.
Do these sales tax questions apply to both the city's fixed route bus system - the T - and the city's paratransit system for the elderly and disabled?
Yes. City commissioners have selected these two sales taxes as the sole funding source for both the fixed route system and the door-to-door paratransit system that serves people who are disabled or elderly.
If these sales taxes fail, will the bus system really shut down?
It is tough to say anything about the future definitively, but odds are that if sales tax Question No. 2 fails, both the fixed route and paratransit system will shut down by the beginning of 2009. City commissioners have adopted no contingency plan for how they would keep the system running in 2009. The commission has removed from the 2009 city budget all property tax funding for the transit system. The city automatically would become ineligible for the federal funding it receives to help run the transit system because that funding requires a local funding match.
Is there is a way the city could keep a smaller system running if it wanted to?
An old saying in City Hall is that almost anything is possible if you can count to three (the number that equals a majority on the commission). Here are two scenarios.
If the sales taxes fail, the city would still have about $500,000 in reserve funds set aside to buy new buses. That money could instead be used to fund a scaled-down paratransit system for the disabled and elderly. But City Manager David Corliss has said it would be an extremely scaled-down service. Now, the paratransit system operates about 11 buses per day, six days per week. Using just the $500,000 in reserve money, the city could only operate two buses, six days per week.
A second scenario is that the city has about $10 million in a general fund savings account. That's more than enough to run the entire fixed route and paratransit systems. Theoretically, the city can tap into those funds to keep the transit system going. But commissioners have made no commitment to do so, and staff members likely would caution against it.
One wild card is that the next City Commission election is in April, which means three new faces could be joining the commission.
How many people ride the T?
The city says the T provides about 1,200 rides per day, Monday through Saturday. But in terms of how many individuals actually ride the T, that is a tougher number to determine. The city has no good estimate on the number of individuals who ride.
Who rides the T?
According to a 2007 ridership survey conducted by the city, 48 percent of riders are 18 to 34 years old; 55 percent are white, while 16 percent are black; 53 percent are male; 46 percent of riders said they had a household income of less than $15,000 per year; 24 percent said they had an income between $15,000 and $24,999; 78 percent said they didn't have a vehicle available to them when making this particular trip.
How close to capacity do the T buses run?
It depends on when you're measuring. But overall, the buses don't run near capacity. In general, the system has 10 buses on the street every hour. Each bus can comfortably hold 40 people. Based on recent ridership figures, the system over the course of its 14-hour day averages 85 to 100 riders per hour. The capacity of the system at any given time is 400 people (40 riders times 10 buses). But supporters of the system point out that the city's streets don't operate at capacity at all times either. Just like the city streets, the buses are built to handle peak times, which are the morning and evening rush hours. City leaders say at those times the buses operate at much higher levels of efficiency.
Does the city plan to make changes to the bus system if the sales taxes are approved?
Yes. The city has signed a letter of intent to merge, consolidate or coordinate its system with the Kansas University bus systems by July. City Manager David Corliss has said there is no guarantee that the city and university bus systems will fully merge, but he said the goal is for the two systems to provide seamless service for customers. That would mean that both systems would operate off a shared route map and would honor each other's transfer passes. There's also been talk of implementing a "pulse system," where more buses would operate during the morning and evening rush hours, but fewer would operate during the middle of the day.
Will the city start using smaller buses, and start using alternative fuel buses in the future?
City commissioners have stopped short of committing to either idea. City staff members have urged caution in switching to smaller buses because there is fear that the lighter-duty buses will not last as long. Some city commissioners have talked about using compressed natural gas - instead of diesel - to fuel the system. But commissioners also have said they need more information on the impact of such a switch.
You hear some people say the city should just create a taxi cab program to provide service to the needy. Do any cities actually do that?
Yes. Nearby, the largest city to use a taxi cab voucher program as its primary public transit source is Olathe. Leaders of the Olathe system earlier this year told the Journal-World that the system provides about 45,000 rides per year. The city spends about $300,000 in local tax dollars for the system and has received about $240,000 per year in federal grants. But unlike the T, the system is not open to everyone. The system is limited to people who are disabled, elderly or make less than 80 percent of the median income as set by Housing and Urban Development.
Why is the city looking for new funding for the bus system?
The main reason is that costs are increasing. Because of the price of fuel and higher costs to operate aging buses, it is estimated that the city will need to spend $1 million more in 2009 than it did in 2008 to run the system. A big factor is that the city's contract with MV Transportation to operate the system expires at the end of 2008. That contract had a clause that capped the price the city paid for diesel fuel at $1.62 per gallon. The new contract won't have such a cap.
Why is the city insisting on using a sales tax to pay for the bus system rather than property taxes?
Two reasons. One, the City Commission has been reluctant to raise property taxes. Two, commissioners believe the sales tax will be a more stable source of funding for the bus system.
When the city began budgeting for a bus system in 1999, commissioners created a three-mill property tax levy for the system. But over the years - many times when there was a desire to reduce property taxes - commissioners cut the transit mill levy. By 2006, the mill levy had been cut to a low point of six-tenths of a mill.
The transit system was able to operate with such a low mill levy because in the early years the high mill levy had been used to create a large transit reserve fund. Commissioners used money from the transit reserve fund to pay for the general operations of the bus system. But past administrators have said that reserve fund was created to pay for the day when fuel prices increased and buses needed to be replaced. That day has now come, but the reserve fund is now low.
Since the city has eliminated the public transit mill levy, does that mean I'll be getting a property tax break?
Not much of one. City commissioners took all but one-tenth of a mill of the 1.17 mills set aside for transit and shifted it over to the city's general fund and the bond-and-interest fund. That means that in 2009 the city will be using what was the transit mill levy to pay for general city expenses - everything from employee wages to gasoline for mowers and snow plows.
How much does it cost to operate the bus system, and how much money does it generate?
This year, the transit system (both the T and the paratransit service) is expected to have $3.4 million in expenses. It is expected to collect the following revenue: $1 million in local property taxes; $1.5 million in grant money from the Federal Transit Administration; $250,000 in grant money from the Kansas Department of Transportation; and $312,300 in fares paid by riders. The city also is using $336,681 in fund balance money left over from past budgets to make up the difference between projected expenses and revenues.
Since the city used federal money to buy the buses, what will happen to the buses if the system is shut down?
The city will have to send some money back to the Federal Transit Administration. Federal regulations require the city to sell the buses for fair market value once the system no longer is operational. The city will have to return 80 percent of the fair market value of each bus to the FTA. The city has not yet determined the fair market value of each bus. T buses cost $205,795 when purchased new in 1999.
What say will Kansas University students have in any merger or coordination of the city and university bus systems?
Likely a large one. The recently signed letter of intent between KU and the city states that any consolidation or merger will require "appropriate approval" from KU Student Senate. Students also would bring significant funding to the table. Students recently approved new student fees of $44.90 per semester for transit operations and $20 per semester for a bus-replacement fund. Odds are, if students aren't happy with any proposed merger or consolidation of the systems, it won't happen.
Has the T met the expectations that were set for it when it was created?
Supporters of the system say the T has been one of the better performing systems in the country. Three times in the past five years, the system has been awarded the FTA's award of excellence for posting the highest percentage increase in ridership for any urban bus system in the state. Ridership increases for much of the system's history have been above the national average. But the system hasn't met some projections or expectations talked about in the late 1990s. For example, in 1998, the city conducted a scientific survey that included questions about the creation of a public transit system. That survey found 78 percent said they would support creation of a public transit system. More than half of everyone surveyed said they would ride a "convenient" bus system once per week, and 22 percent said they would ride the bus every day. At 1,200 rides per day, those survey numbers have not held out to be true.