Archive for Monday, August 21, 2017

Renewal of transit sales tax the ‘ultimate question’ for city bus service

Lawrence residents James and Alicia Womack and their 2-year-old daughter Adrianna wait for their bus to depart from the downtown bus hub at Seventh and Vermont streets on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017. The renewal of the transit sales tax will be on the November ballot. The tax provides more than 40 percent of the revenue needed to operate the T.

Lawrence residents James and Alicia Womack and their 2-year-old daughter Adrianna wait for their bus to depart from the downtown bus hub at Seventh and Vermont streets on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017. The renewal of the transit sales tax will be on the November ballot. The tax provides more than 40 percent of the revenue needed to operate the T.

August 21, 2017


After more than a decade of investment, the future of the city’s bus service may come down to a yes or no question.

In November, Lawrence voters will be asked whether to renew the .2 percent special sales tax that provides millions of dollars of funding annually for the city’s public transit service.

“It is the ultimate question that we have to have answered,” said Robert Nugent, transit administrator for the city. “If the sales tax doesn’t pass we’ll have to dramatically reduce service in order to get our budget in line.”

It’s projected the transit service will cost nearly $9 million to operate this year, with the special sales tax providing more than 40 percent of that funding. The tax is one of three sales taxes that will expire in 2019 unless voters choose to renew them for another 10 years.

Though some local leaders agree that it's important for the city to provide public transit, the path ahead for transit should the sales tax renewal fail is unclear.

'A vital service'

If the sales tax is renewed, it is projected to generate about $4 million per year for transit operations, helping the city to receive nearly that same amount annually from state and federal transportation grants. Bus fares only account for about 6 percent of transit’s revenue.

Riders of the Lawrence transit service, which includes routes coordinated with the University of Kansas bus service, now make more than 3 million trips annually, according to Nugent.

A Lawrence transit rider boards a bus on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017 at the downtown bus hub at Seventh and Vermont streets.

A Lawrence transit rider boards a bus on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017 at the downtown bus hub at Seventh and Vermont streets.

Vice Mayor Stuart Boley expects those numbers to grow. The city has prioritized infill development, and Boley said he thinks public transit will become more important as Lawrence becomes more densely populated.

“I think sustainable transit is a vital service for our community, more so than individual cars,” Boley said. “I think it’s important for our future. As we increase density, I think transit will be more and more important to people.”

Mayor Leslie Soden said she thinks providing some kind of mass transit is an important function for the city to maintain regardless of the outcome of the sales tax renewal. Soden noted that one of the priority initiatives of the commission’s strategic plan is to foster economic growth and security for businesses and people. She said for a lot of people, that includes mass transit.

“If we want people to be productive citizens then (the city should) provide them a way to get to and from work, or doctor appointments, or even just to the grocery store or whatever,” Soden said. “I think that’s important for people to have the ability to still do those basic things that we all may take for granted when we have our own vehicle.”

An alternative

Currently, the .55 percent sales tax breaks down as follows: .3 percent for infrastructure, .2 percent for transit and .05 percent for expanded transit service. Under the upcoming sales tax renewal proposal, the .05 percent would be repurposed to fund the city’s affordable housing trust fund. If not renewed by Lawrence voters, the taxes will sunset in March 2019.

If the sales tax renewal fails in November, city officials said there is time before it expires to modify the proposed sales tax renewal and include them in a subsequent election.

“Depending on if one or more of them were unsuccessful, we may look at doing it differently,” Assistant City Manager Casey Toomay said. “Maybe we would go back and look at a different amount. It would just give us time to consider our options and try to come back with another ballot initiative.”

Before the special sales tax was approved in 2008, local funding for transit came from property taxes. Should the renewal fail, the city could go back to using property tax, but Toomay said that would require cuts elsewhere.

“We could find some other local match, but I’m not really sure that one comes to mind that wouldn’t require significant service reductions in other areas,” Toomay said.

Under the state’s new property tax lid, using property taxes instead of sales taxes could also require voter approval if the city’s property tax lid is exceeded. Toomay said that will depend on several factors, such as the amount of exempt expenditures and property valuations, that the city doesn’t yet have for 2019.

“I think there are too many variables there to say at this point whether it would fall under the lid or not,” Toomay said. Given that, she said she doesn’t want to speculate.

Soden said if the renewal of the transit sales tax fails, she would consider using property taxes instead, but would make reductions elsewhere as opposed to raising the overall mill levy rate.

“I wouldn’t want to raise property taxes at all,” Soden said. “We would need to reconfigure the system.”

A learning process

Boley said at this point he is hesitant to speculate about how the city should proceed if voters deny the sales tax renewal. If residents vote no, he said his interest would be learning what people have to say about the topic.

“This will be a learning process for the commission and for the community,” Boley said. “This is a chance for people to check in with what’s going on, what we’ve done with transit in the last 10 years, and also to talk about where we see transit going in the next 10 years with the possibility of doing a transit hub.”

A transit hub is another piece of the puzzle. In May, the City Commission voted unanimously to move forward with another location study for a bus hub. The study started anew earlier this month and will collect public and commissioner input to help identify potential locations for both a primary and secondary bus transfer hub.

Nugent said having a source of local dollars for the federal matching grant is key, and failure of the sales tax renewal would mean declining service unless other local funds were identified.

“We could continue to operate for a while, but we would have to reduce the service,” Nugent said. “And if it wouldn’t pass the second time, service would virtually go away. There would be no local dollars unless the city would decide to fund it in another way.”


Kermit Cottrell 10 months ago

At some point, we are going to reach our limit as citizens of Lawrence. Taking a look at all of the ancient infrastructure that Lawrence will have to deal with in the next few years. It would be wise to make decisions not based on each individual event, but on a sustainable plan. While some transportation would be needed, I do not believe that we need all of these large empty buses floating around the city. If cutting out this tax would result in us using more economical and smaller transportation in areas where needed, it would be a good sign of fiscal responsibility.

Fred Whitehead Jr. 10 months ago

" I do not believe that we need all of these large empty buses floating around the city."

I thought I was the only one in town that had any sense about the "Empty Bus Company"

This has been the most stupid and ignorant waste of tax money I can imagine. It would be cheaper to provide free taxi service for the level of ridership.

Get real Lawrence......dump this cash "black hole."

David Holroyd 10 months ago

Affordable housing Boley wants. How Mr. Boley if you raise sales taxes, property taxes, fees , fines. Not every one has an IRS pension.

My mother and my siblings rode the bus, we like it. it had fixes routes, the buses were full... BUT in Lawrence it is for the KU Students...

And then show the family in the photograph to grad at hour heartstrings......

Show the real pictures of the riders......

Sell and move because this is not over...the police station , the school district, and I wait for the other posters to claim it is the conservatives...."cry me a river"

State award for highest ridership....not more riders but the same ones..riding around in circles.

And to show a big fancy bus with one person at the stop....


Paul Beyer 10 months ago

Obviously the whiners on this forum have no clue about who uses and why they use the buses. Suggest that maybe these whiners actually ride for an entire circuit of any route.

Scott Logan 10 months ago

SIGH!!!! Not counting the numerous "Nightline" and Para transit routes....the CITY has about 19 buses on 12 fixed routes, and of those 19 buses only FIVE (5) are "Big Buses" they are 40' long. 3 #11 routes, and 2 #10 routes, and ALL 5 of those buses go through the college campus which has roughly 30,000 MORE people in addition to the roughly 90,000 permanent residents of Lawrence. Trust me...THEY AIN'T EMPTY!!! The only way to know that, would be to come out from behind the keyboard, and won't hurt, most everyone is friendly, and as far as I know....nobody bites!

Andrew Applegarth 10 months ago

Just don't ride the #10. It gets the worst of the junkers that the city buys and has been known to have a bus fail or barely make it up the hill on Bob Billings.

Steve Jacob 10 months ago

There is no guarantees on the matching funds. What happens then?

David Holroyd 10 months ago

Just for Mr. Beyer,,,I have taken a ride on the buses. You apparently have not because you are not credible not knowing which branch of the service you were in.

The buses have demolished the streets they travel on. Look at them instead of sitting inside playing with you devices!!

And the story continues because the bus drivers are going to seek a raise...more expense for the buses.

And further more.......the photo is a sorry excuse for showing the many riders on the bus.

A photo of 3 people and the parents (skeptical if married) ignoring the child.

Journal World....hint!! You should have taken a picture of a FULL BUS....where are they? If you cannot find it..go to Bangladesh and take a picture...

Show people hanging on standing in the aisles...You sure won't find it in Lawrence!!

Richard Heckler 10 months ago

I say direct the tax dollars this way:

Dedicate: .3 percent to the walkable community/Complete Streets projects , .2 percent for affordable housing trust fund .05 percent for expanded transit service.

Kevin Kelly 10 months ago

How much does KU pay into the Lawrence transit system? What is the share agreement between the City and KU for maintenance, fuel, insurance, acquiring new buses, etc? What does a KU student vs a Lawrence resident pay for a spin around town? What is the ridership % of townie vs college student? These are the ultimate questions when you are asking for more money from Lawrence residents. Not anti bus, just pro fair share.

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