Tim Utter can tell you that it takes about an hour to walk from the Santa Fe Industrial Park near the Kansas Turnpike to east Lawrence.
He knows because he made the walk several times when he unexpectedly was moved to the third shift by his industrial employer. Utter relies on public transportation to get to and from work, and the city’s fixed-route bus system runs only from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
“You really are at the mercy of getting someone to give you a ride, or else you just walk,” Utter said. “I walked several times because that is what you do when you need the job.”
Soon, though, you may pick up the phone and call for a city bus.
City Manager David Corliss’ recommended budget calls for $250,000 to fund a pilot program that would extend the hours of the city’s public transit system to cover the time period from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. Monday through Saturday.
City officials still are developing plans for the service, but they’ve said it would operate significantly different than the daytime routes.
Robert Nugent, the city’s public transit administrator, said the plan is to operate only two 18-passenger buses to cover the entire city during the nighttime hours. Instead of the buses running regular routes, they would only be on the streets when riders call to schedule a pickup.
The city now uses such a “demand response” system during portions of the daytime hours on Route No. 3, which runs from downtown to Lawrence Memorial Hospital and the industrial area along North Iowa Street. Come Aug. 1, the entire route will operate on the demand-response system all day long.
Under the system, riders call a number staffed by transit employees to book a ride on the bus — much like they would call for a taxi but at a fraction of the price. The service charges the standard $1 one-way transit fare.
With the nighttime service, Nugent said the city is still trying to determine how far in advance a rider would need to schedule a ride. Nugent said there is some concern that if a ride could be requested with only an hour’s notice, for example, that the system could become overloaded by college students looking for rides home from drinking establishments.
Nugent said Kansas University operates a robust safe-ride program, and the city wants its new service to focus on serving workers who don’t have other options to get to work.
“We definitely don’t want somebody on Mass. Street calling at 3 in the morning taking away from somebody else who needs the system to get to work,” said Nugent, who also said workers likely would be able to make a standing appointment if they knew they would need the bus on a regular basis.
Morris Harding, a frequent rider of the T, said the focus on serving late-night and early-morning workers was appropriate.
“I know there are people out there who pass up jobs, even though they have the experience, because they just don’t have viable transportation,” Harding said. “This is one of those things that could really make a difference in some people’s lives.”
Utter said he thinks the new service also could be beneficial, but he’s not sure it ought to be the first priority for transit improvements in Lawrence. He said he wants the city to improve the efficiency of existing routes, noting he often has to wait for 30 minutes or more on a transfer to get from his east Lawrence home to Checkers grocery store in central Lawrence.
But Nugent said the request for extended hours is a frequent one.
“People talk about how they want later hours and how they want service on Sundays,” Nugent said. “You basically hear those requests at every public hearing we have.”
If approved by city commissioners, the $250,000 would come from a portion of the two sales taxes voters approved for transit operations in 2008. Specifically, the money would come from a 0.05 percent sales tax that is set aside to provide “enhancements” to the city’s public transit service. The tax generated about $645,000 in 2011.
City commissioners will discuss the bus proposal and other budget-related items at a 4 p.m. study session Tuesday at City Hall.