Ridership on the city's embattled public transit system has begun to increase after months of ridership declines.
City Hall leaders on Tuesday trumpeted new numbers that show ridership for the city's T system increased by 8.3 percent in July and 8 percent in August, compared with the same months from a year ago. The fixed-route system provided 33,292 rides in July and 35,349 rides in August.
"We're pleased with the numbers," said Casey Toomay, interim public transit administrator. "I think it is evidence that the community recognizes there are benefits to public transit and that we're able to meet the needs of the community."
But city leaders in their announcement on Tuesday did not mention that ridership numbers for the entire year continue to be down by 6.5 percent from 2007 numbers. That decline is in sharp contrast to national numbers. Nationally, bus ridership was up by 3.7 percent during the first six months of 2008.
Voters on Nov. 4 will decide on two sales tax questions to provide funding for the city's public transit system. The two sales taxes - which, if both are approved, would create a new quarter-cent sales tax for transit - are the only funding sources identified for public transit in 2009.
Before the July and August totals, the T had been on a long losing streak. Ridership on the T - when compared with the same month in the previous year - had declined for 15 consecutive months, dating back to April 2007. Since September 2006, ridership on the T had declined in 20 out of the last 22 months.
City Hall leaders originally had pointed to fare increases from 50 cents to $1 as the likely reason for the decline in ridership. But the numbers show that the decline in ridership began before the fare increases took effect in July 2007. Instead, the numbers indicate ridership began to decline at about the same time Kansas University began its park and ride service in August 2006.
But now Toomay said a new partnership with KU likely is part of the reason that ridership numbers have increased. In August, the city began allowing any KU student or staff member with a valid KU ID to ride the T for free. City residents who have a T bus pass also are able to ride university buses for free.
"We think this really speaks positively about what we can do when we partner with KU," Toomay said.
City Commissioner Rob Chestnut, who often has expressed concerns about the declining ridership, said he was pleased to see the beginning of a reversal, but said there was still much work to be done.
"There already has been a recognition that we need to do something different with the system," Chestnut said. "And I still think that's the case."
The city and the university have signed a memorandum of understanding to merge their systems if voters approve the sales tax questions in November. Exact details of what a merged system would look like haven't emerged, but commissioners have said they would expect more efficient routes to be part of a new system.