Lawrence voters save bus system by approving sales tax

It was two for the T.

Lawrence voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a pair of transit sales taxes – one to keep the city’s bus system operating, and another to expand it.

In what was billed as a referendum on the value of the T – the city’s fixed route bus system, voters approved a new two tenths of a percent sales tax by a margin of 70 percent to 30 percent. A second five one-hundredths of a percent sales tax to provide funding for new buses and enhanced transit services won by a margin of nearly 69 percent to 31 percent.

“This is the Lawrence I know,” said David Smith, one of the leaders of the citizens’ group Campaign to Save the T. “It is a very welcoming community, a very inclusive community with real civic spirit.

“This vote said something very important about Lawrence and its identity. It was about whether we do think about the whole community, about whether we rally together.”

City commissioners who voted to put the questions on the ballot had expressed optimism that the votes would prevail. But as they watched the returns roll in at a packed Douglas County Courthouse, they admitted surprise at the large margins of victory.

“I think this might show that people really do appreciate the T, even though they don’t ride it,” said Mayor Mike Dever, who championed the idea of putting the future of the transit system in the hands of voters. “There are a lot of people who want it around when they need it.”

But the system that will be around in the future likely will look different than the current bus system. The city and university have signed a letter of intent to either merge or better coordinate the city and university bus systems by July. City Manager David Corliss said negotiations with KU administrators and students would now intensify.

Smith said he believed the vote was a mandate for city commissioners to make significant improvements to the bus system.

“I don’t perceive this as being a referendum on what has happened in the past,” Smith said. “I think what this basically reflects is what people want for the future. People can’t easily picture a city like Lawrence without public transit.”

If the votes had failed, both city commissioners and public transit supporters had predicted the city would shut down both its fixed route system, and it paratransit system that serves the elderly and disabled. City commissioners did not include any property tax dollars to fund the transit system in their 2009 budget.

But opponents had argued that voters should reject the sales taxes and force the city to start over with a smaller, more efficient system.

“The voters have spoken,” said Lawrence resident Jim Mullins with the anti-tax group Americans for Prosperity. “I think they are wrong, but they have spoken.”

The two sales taxes – totaling a quarter percent or 25 cents for every $100 spent in Lawrence – will begin in April. The two taxes are expected to generate $1.88 million in 2009 and $3.28 million in 2010. Both sales taxes – by law – will expire in 10 years. The only way they can be renewed is if voters approve them as part of a citywide election.