With about half of the funding for Lawrence's public bus service not guaranteed after next year, some Lawrence city commissioners are hesitant about advancing plans for a transit center.
At their meeting Tuesday, commissioners delayed approving a location study for a multimillion-dollar transit hub. Instead, commissioners said questions regarding the transit system’s public funding needed to be answered first.
Commissioner Mike Amyx said he thinks the local funding is the most important part of the discussion, and the commission should concentrate on the effort to renew it.
“We should be doing that and that only,” Amyx said. “Until that happens, a lot of the rest of this is just words on paper.”
Less than 10 percent of the city's bus services are supported by fares, with the rest coming from federal, state and local funding. In 2015, state and federal funding supported 48 percent of operating expenses and local sales tax revenues supported 44 percent, according to a recently completed operations analysis.
The local transit funds are generated by a .25 percent citywide tax. The city’s budget for this year estimates the tax will generate about $4.4 million for transit. The tax is set to sunset at the end of 2018, and it will be up to Lawrence voters whether it's renewed.
In response to Amyx, transit officials said that Lawrence would still have a transit service if the sales tax doesn’t pass, but it would be reduced significantly.
“If we continue to get the federal funds that we get now and get the state funds that we get now, we could put out about $2-3 million worth of service, which would be less than half of what we do now,” said Lawrence Public Transit Administrator Robert Nugent.
Amyx noted that one of the expectations is that the sales tax would help fund a transit center for the bus service. Transit lacks a dedicated facility, and a previously completed study identified several possible locations for a transit hub, but none materialized. Some locations were opposed by neighborhoods, and a location on the University of Kansas campus didn’t win the grant it needed to proceed.
All but approximately $10,000 of the cost of the new study will be covered by a Metropolitan Planning Organization grant. Last month, the commission voted to make a request for proposals for the study, but it agreed not to move forward with a contract without further discussion.
Currently, bus transfers are primarily done along the curb in the 700 block of Vermont Street. The transit operations analysis indicated that location lacks sufficient space, amenities and pedestrian safeguards, and Nugent said those issues would have to be addressed if the transfer point remains there.
“We have a lot of activity going on out there,” Nugent said. “We have traffic going both ways, we have people parked on both sides, people trying to get to buses cutting in and out of buses.”
Nugent said in addition to analyzing current ridership data, the new study would get more input up front from the commission, the public and the University of Kansas. For KU, Nugent said that included identifying potential locations for the transit hub on university or KU Endowment land.
The commission agreed that more information regarding the timing of the sales tax referendum is needed to inform the transit hub decision, but differed on whether another location study is needed.
Commissioner Lisa Larsen said she is concerned there aren't enough viable locations for a hub to warrant another study, and Commissioner Matthew Herbert said he doesn’t think another study will provide drastically different results. Herbert said he thinks the commission should either choose a location now and build the transit center, or wait until 2018 to see if the sales tax referendum passes.
“We have to take some ownership of this and instead of just spending money doing survey after survey and study after study, we just have to say, 'Here’s where the thing’s going to go,'” Herbert said. “That’s the leadership we’re going to have to demonstrate. And you’re not going to find a neighborhood that’s going to beg to have this in their backyard.”
Commissioner Stuart Boley said he thinks the commission should go ahead and do the location study, especially given that the grant money to fund the study needs to be spent this year.
“I don’t think our transit system is going to go away,” Boley said. “I think we need to make a good decision, and have good information and good advice and actually engage the community in the process.”
In the end, the commission took no action regarding the transit hub location study and instead directed staff to review the study’s timing in relation to the sales tax referendum and the deadline to allocate the grant money earmarked for the study.
The topic will come before the commission again in May.