Town Talk: City to host meeting about converting Santa Fe Depot into transit hub; a bus system the city uses but doesn’t pay for; more on gasoline prices; street renaming on city’s agenda

News and notes from around town:

• Get ready for a new effort to convince Lawrence City Hall to take over ownership of the Santa Fe Depot in East Lawrence.

As we’ve previously reported, a group of residents who want to see the 1950s-era depot at Seventh and New Jersey streets restored, have asked City Hall to take over ownership of the building. But city commissioners have been reluctant to do so because they don’t have a clear idea of how they would pay for about $400,000 worth of fairly immediate repairs needed to the building. An architectural report also has identified about $1 million worth of longer-range improvements to the site.

But in November, city commissioners expressed interest in studying whether the building could be used for a transit hub for the city’s bus system. That would allow the building — which already serves as the depot for Amtrak service — to perhaps become eligible for Federal Transit Authority grant money. The city has been successful in competing for those types of grants in the past.

Well, City Hall leaders soon will hold a public meeting to get feedback on the transit hub idea. The city’s transit staff will host a meeting from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Feb. 1 at the Santa Fe Station, 413 E. Seventh Street.

I’ll be interested to see if anybody brings up what could be labeled Lawrence’s most forgotten public transit system, but perhaps one of its more successful. That’s the K-10 Connector service. The service — run by Johnson County Transit — transports passengers from Johnson County to Lawrence. It operates five days per week, from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., on most days.

The service has two drop off locations in Johnson County — the Johnson County Community College and the KU Edwards Campus. In Lawrence, it also has two locations — the KU Park & Ride lot on West Campus, and the shopping center at 19th and Haskell.

Folks who come in from Johnson County can get off at either location and catch a city T bus or one of KU’s buses to get to other locations in the city.

And, there are a lot of them who do so. Chuck Ferguson, deputy transportation director for Johnson County Transit, told me that about 130,000 riders a year used the service in 2010. Numbers in 2011 were strong too. In August, for example, there were about 1,100 riders per day.

“You can catch a bus about every hour, and it is a pretty direct trip, so I think that is one of the reasons it has been popular,” Ferguson said of the service that started in 2007. “We did a study before we began, and we expected to have 500 riders a day after five years. We had 500 riders a day after about five months. It has been growing significantly.”

But just like folks who use the city’s T system, riders don’t really have any type of bus station to serve them while they wait to catch their next ride. That’s one of the problems the city is trying to fix for T riders by converting the Santa Fe Depot into a transit hub. It will be interesting to see if anyone suggests the city try to tackle the problem for both bus systems.

Maybe the city’s idea of using the Santa Fe Depot for a transit hub could work for the K-10 Connector too. Or maybe not. I drive by the 19th and Haskell site regularly, and it is not at all unusual for 60 to 70 cars to be in that parking lot. Most of them are people who have driven to the lot in order to catch the bus. It would seem very difficult for the Santa Fe station to accommodate that level of parking. In fact, space at the site is so tight that the city says the T buses likely won’t be able to pull into a parking lot for loading and unloading. Instead that will be done off Seventh Street.

It will be worth watching whether the city looks at any other locations for a transit hub, or whether it focuses solely on the Santa Fe Depot. I don’t know what type of partnership possibilities are available at the KU park and ride lot to build a station, or for that matter, occupying existing space at 19th and Haskell. Of course, both of those locations perhaps would cause some significant reworking of routes and may cause the city to move away from its strategy that the bus system be downtown-centric. It also would mean that there wouldn’t be Federal Transit Authority dollars available to restore the Santa Fe Depot. So there would be some trade-offs to consider.

Fortunately, I don’t get paid to make such decisions, and I’m not trying to imply one way is better than the other. But I do get paid to bring up issues that folks aren’t necessarily talking about.

• Speaking of issues that don’t get much talk, Lawrence voters overwhelmingly approved new sales taxes in 2008 to pay for the city’s transit service. But do you know that neither the city nor the county pays anything to support the K-Connector Service? The folks at Johnson County Transit sure have noticed.

“We’re footing the whole bill for it,” said Ferguson, who said his office has approached Douglas County governments about participating in the costs. “We certainly would like to revisit that issue. We have not put on a full court press, but with the economy the way it is, we may be forced to do so.”

Ferguson said the idea of charging non-Johnson County residents a higher fare to ride the bus also has been discussed. Currently, people can buy 10 rides for $22.50 or buy a single ride for $3. Ferguson said, though, a general rate increase is being discussed, perhaps increasing rates to about $25 for 10 rides.

Ferguson didn’t say how much support they may seek from Douglas County governments. Like most transit systems, the service is subsidized by government with the idea that fewer cars on the roads create benefits and cost savings in other areas. In 2011, K-10 connector service was expected to have expenses of about $835,000. Fares were expected to offset those expenses by about $335,000. In other words, Johnson County government is subsidizing a bus service that runs to Lawrence each day to the tune of about $500,000 per year.

• I’m a bit surprised the buses aren’t fuller than they are. What is up with gasoline prices in the state of Kansas? As I mentioned Thursday, I was in Denver for the SLT oral argument in federal appeals court. I passed along one gas price of $3.04 a gallon in downtown Denver, but then on the way to the airport I saw a price for $2.89 per gallon. That seemed to be more the norm than the downtown stuff. By way of comparison, I filled up my truck on the way home from KCI and paid $3.19 a gallon along K-10. I figured a difference in state gasoline taxes must be the difference, because as far as I know, the Kansas City area has as good of access to gasoline refineries as Denver does. (Maybe I’m wrong, here. But for years, the standard advice for folks heading to Colorado was to always fill up before you get to the mountains.)

Anyway, gasoline taxes don’t appear to be the answer. According to this handy-dandy chart, Kansas’ gasoline taxes are only 3 cents higher than Colorado’s. As I’ve said before, it is a free country and gasoline retailers are free to charge what they choose. And I’m also free to point out the differences.

• One quick note about City Commission matters. If you have a strong opinion about renaming the portion of 11th Street from Mississippi to Missouri, Tuesday night is your time to speak up. Commissioners will consider renaming the street, which runs by KU’s football stadium, to Fambrough Drive. City staff has researched the issue and determined no addresses of property would need to be changed as part of the renaming. But in order to accomplish that, the city will be creating a situation where Fambrough Drive is abutted by 11th Street on both its east and west ends. Here’s a map that shows it in more detail.

Commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. on Tuesday at City Hall.