Almost every Lawrence motorist knows Jo. It is the big bus run by Johnson County Transit — the Jo, for short — that motors along Kansas Highway 10 taking riders between Kansas University, Johnson County Community College and KU’s Edwards Campus.
What motorists may not know about Jo is this: It is a round-trip bus with a one-way funding plan. Even in prosperous Johnson County, that’s starting to draw some questions.
“I can tell you that the question has been asked multiple times why Johnson County is operating that route and bearing the full brunt of the operational costs,” said Chuck Ferguson, deputy director of Johnson County Transit.
The route, known as the K-10 Connector, costs about $840,000 a year to operate. Ferguson estimates 60 percent of the riders on the route reside in Lawrence or Douglas County. But currently no Douglas County entity, such as the city’s transit department or KU, helps pay to operate the service.
Ferguson said he expects serious discussions about whether Douglas County support will be required for the service to continue operating for the long term.
“From an administrator’s standpoint, I think it would be appropriate that they help us with these costs because there are benefits from the service that go beyond Johnson County,” Ferguson said.
Transit leaders with the city and Kansas University, however, said they need a better understanding of how the system fits into the overall goals they are trying to accomplish in Lawrence.
“When voters approved the transit sales taxes in 2008, they talked a lot about improving transit in the Lawrence community,” said Robert Nugent, the city’s public transit administrator. “But they didn’t talk much at all about our role in providing transit to other communities.”
Danny Kaiser, assistant director for KU’s Parking and Transit Department, said he does think the K-10 Connector service makes it easier for some Johnson County residents to attend KU. He said the service also likely benefits local streets and Kansas Highway 10 by reducing traffic volumes on the road.
“I suspect there are benefits to us, but how do you quantify them?” Kaiser said. “That probably is not for me to determine.”
Nugent said before that he wanted more information, such as how many Johnson County residents use the service to commute to a job in Lawrence, before the city would consider a financial contribution. He said if the primary users of the service are Lawrence residents who attend Johnson County Community College, the city would want to consider whether it wants to subsidize that use of the service.
“It is really hard to say what could happen in the future,” Nugent said. “If we could get a good idea of who is using the service, it could happen. But right now that information is murky.”
Just a few weeks ago, it looked like the K-10 Connector service was at risk of closure in 2013.
But Ferguson said his department recently received word that it would not see a $400,000 reduction in its budget from the Johnson County Commission. That likely will keep the service intact for 2013.
“At this point in time, it is our intention to not do anything dramatic to the K-10 Connector service in 2013,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson said his office wants to find a way to keep the service for the long term because ridership numbers have been very strong.
The service provided about 150,000 passenger trips in 2011, up from about 130,000 in 2010.
“The popularity of the service is immense,” Ferguson said. “It is a route that has a perfect storm surrounding it. It connects three educational campuses, there are very few stops on the route, and that makes it one of those transit options where there is very little difference in the amount of time it takes you to ride your bus versus taking your car.”
The service charges $3 for a one-way route. Fares pay for about 40 percent of the approximately $840,000 in operational costs. Ferguson said the department has considered a significant increase in fares, but said there is concern ridership could drop significantly.
Ferguson said his department will now await direction from Johnson County leaders on whether to formally ask Lawrence, KU and perhaps even Douglas County for funding.
Hate to lose it
Lawrence City Commissioner Mike Dever stopped short of saying he would be willing to provide city funding to the service, but he said local leaders need to monitor the situation.
Dever, who was a leading proponent of the 2008 transit sales taxes, said the service will have a growing value as Lawrence works to stay in compliance with new EPA regulations related to air quality.
“I’m confident there is a reduction in cars traveling between Lawrence and Johnson County as a result of this service,” Dever said. “The more cars we can get off the street, the more it helps our cause. We need to work together to see how we can keep that route in place.”