Whatever message voters send to the Lawrence City Commission concerning the city's public transit system is likely to be as unclear as the question the commission has put on the Nov. 4 ballot.
City commissioners apparently believe they have done their duty by putting a sales tax question on the ballot, which essentially will save or kill the city's T system, including the paratransit system that serves riders with special needs. In discussing the sales tax questions, city officials assure voters that they understand the T needs many improvements, including a revised route system and additional efforts to work with Kansas University toward a merged bus system.
The only problem is that our city leaders have made little, if any, effort to make those changes or even define what the new improved T will look like. That forces supporters of the T to either approve funding for a completely undefined plan or kill the T in an effort to force city officials to come up with a specific plan to save it.
It's not like city commissioners didn't see this problem coming. For several years, commissioners have been depleting the T's reserve fund in order to provide property tax reductions in the city. They also knew the city would have to renegotiate its contract with the T's operators this year and that rising fuel prices and higher maintenance costs undoubtedly would cause that contract to rise considerably.
It was clear the T needed help, but there was no serious discussion of how to alter routes or operations to make the system more efficient - only vague acknowledgment that such changes were needed.
How about the proposed merger with the KU student bus system? City commissioners say they want to pursue such a merger, but they have been sitting on KU's signed letter of intent to merge the systems since June because they said they wanted to work out more details. Well, voters would like some details, too. If any of those details have been worked out, they should be shared with voters before the Nov. 4 election.
Without those details, it will be difficult to know exactly what a "no" vote on the two T sales tax questions means. People who support public transit in Lawrence might still vote "no" because they think a sales tax is the wrong way to finance it or because they don't want to continue the T service in its current form. Some of those who oppose a sales tax might think the T is important enough to warrant a mill-levy increase. Voters who see the current system as flawed might have said "yes" to a more well-defined transit plan that included revised routes and realistic prospects for a merger with KU.
People who simply believe Lawrence needs a fixed-route bus system may be willing to vote for one or both of the sales tax questions, but city commissioners haven't made a "yes" vote easy. Approving the T sales tax would place a lot of faith in commissioners to come up with a plan that is both effective and financially sustainable. Given their inaction on this issue so far, that trust is hard to justify.