Lawrence’s late-night bus experiment is set to begin June 1.
City officials have finalized the details of a new overnight public transit service that will provide bus service from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. Monday through Saturday.
What city officials don’t know is how many people will use the service. Figuring that out is a major point of the new program that received city funding last year as a one-year pilot project.
“This is a question I want to get answered,” said Robert Nugent, the city’s public transit administrator. “The community has long said that if we provided service at night, the public really would use it. I don’t know what the demand will be. There’s a lot of buzz about it. I hope the ridership is as big as the buzz.”
Using the new service, however, will require some planning. The service will operate with a “demand-response” system, meaning it will provide rides only to people who call ahead and schedule a bus to pick them up.
Riders can call a city number, 312-7054, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, to schedule a ride. Fares for the service will be $2 each way, which is double the standard fare for the city’s standard transit buses.
When commissioners last year approved $250,000 in funding for the pilot project, they said they wanted the system to focus on providing service to third-shift workers who needed a way to get to their jobs. They didn’t want to create a service that competed with Kansas University’s Safe Ride program, which provides late-night transportation to students.
Nugent said the premium fare and the need to schedule rides well in advance of the pick-up should make it unlikely the service will be used by late-night partiers.
“If you have to call in before 5 p.m. to schedule a ride, I would think it is going to be pretty tough to know where you are going to be at 2 a.m.,” Nugent said.
Riders of the system will be allowed to call and create a standing appointment, such as a bus picking them up to go to work at the same time each day, Nugent said. Appointments will be filled as they are taken. The $250,000 in funding will allow for two buses to operate during the night-time hours Nugent said.
In other news related to the city’s transit system:
• The city is offering a special summer transit pass for kindergarten through 12th-grade students. The students will be allowed to purchase a $10 pass that allows unlimited rides on the transit system in June, July and August. People interested in purchasing the pass need to do so at the transit service’s administrative offices at 933 New Hampshire St.
• Advocates for homeless services in the community are hoping city officials can figure out a way to provide more passes for people staying at the Lawrence Community Shelter.
Steve Ozark, vice chairman of the Coalition on Homeless Concerns, said his group is looking for a way to get the shelter more bus passes now that it has moved to an isolated location near the Douglas County Jail on the eastern edge of Lawrence.
“It kind of comes down to a fairness issue,” Ozark said. “The community decided to move the shelter out to a spot where there is nothing out there.”
Loring Henderson, director of the shelter, said the amount of funding the city provides the shelter for bus passes hasn’t changed since the shelter moved to its new location late last year. The shelter and six other social service organizations divide $8,000 in funding that can be used for providing bus passes. Henderson said the shelter has about 10 single-ride passes per day that it can provide to guests who need public transit to get to appointments related to health care, a job or other items related to their case management.
But volunteers at the shelter said the number of people needing rides far exceeds that number. C.J. Brune, a local volunteer and social activist, said a volunteer provided rides to 445 people from Jan. 25 through Feb. 20 who either missed a bus or could not afford to pay the $1 fare for a one-way trip on the bus. Brune said she and others plan to lobby city officials to make the bus stop at the community shelter a place of free entry.
Nugent said he has told people concerned about the number of bus passes available at the shelter to begin advocating for more funding for the bus pass program. He said he believes allowing free riders at certain points on the system could create significant operational problems.
Henderson said his staff “certainly could give out a lot more bus passes than they have,” but he hasn’t asked the city for more passes.
Instead, he is trying to deal with the increased transportation needs through the use of the shelter’s van and through volunteers who provide rides to shelter guests.
Henderson, though, said the task has been difficult at times. He said through March, the shelter’s transportation costs are about 33 percent above budget.
• A petition is circulating in downtown Lawrence about a plan to temporarily move the city’s main transit transfer station to the 800 block of Vermont Street.
As previously reported, city buses would use the east side of Vermont Street to park and load and unload passengers in downtown. A new location will be needed once construction begins on the new Marriott hotel at Ninth and New Hampshire streets, which is where the transfers now take place.
The new location, however, will eliminate 13 parking spaces on Vermont Street. Dave Seal, owner of Framewoods Gallery at 819 Massachusetts St., has organized a petition drive asking city commissioners to reconsider the location.
Several businesses in the 800 block of Massachusetts Street use the public parking along Vermont Street, which is directly behind their stores. Seal said the timing is particularly bad because the library’s parking lot already is closed as part of the library’s expansion project.
“We’re already short on downtown parking,” Seal said. “I don’t know the answer, but we are trying to get their attention.”
Seal recently said the petition at his store had about 40 signatures and there were petitions at a handful of other locations.
Nugent said his office has evaluated other locations since the concerns have mounted. He said he reviewed placing the transfer station near 10th and Kentucky streets where the Lawrence Community Shelter previously was located. But he said the area would need significant upgrades to its sidewalks and curb areas to meet accessibility standards.
Nugent said the department is waiting to receive word on when construction at the Marriott site will necessitate a move.
“We have a good plan in place to make the move, as long as the Vermont Street space remains available to us,” Nugent said. “If we don’t go to Vermont Street, I don’t know where we will be going.”
The city has hired a consultant to help the city find a more permanent site for a transfer and bus station. Preliminary recommendations on sites likely will be available by June.