Group wants city’s help to make hitchhiking a reliable form of public transit

If you see me standing alongside a Lawrence street holding a whiteboard that reads “Anyplace warm,” you’ll soon understand I’m not crazy. Instead, I’m just taking part in a new pilot project aimed at transforming hitchhiking into a reliable form of public transportation.

City commissioners this week are being asked to help. Commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting will consider changing an existing ordinance that technically makes it illegal for people to stand along a street for the purpose of soliciting a ride.

The group behind the project is a relatively new nonprofit organization called Lawrence OnBoard. Based on an information packet its director, Jennifer O’Brien, has provided to city officials, here’s a look at how the program is designed to work:

• The basic concept is that hitchhiking will become a more reliable form of ridesharing. But instead of simply sticking your thumb out and hoping for the best, members of Lawrence OnBoard will be equipped with a folding white board with a logo. The rider will write his or her destination on the white board, and then pick a safe place to stand alongside a city street.

• Riders will be asked to register with Lawrence OnBoard before they begin using the system. They’ll be issued a photo I.D., and a background check will be run on each member. As for the drivers, people also can register to be a driver, but any motorist can choose to pick up some one holding a whiteboard. For security purposes, Lawrence OnBoard suggests that riders send a text message to the Lawrence OnBoard office when they get into a vehicle. The text message could include the membership number of the driver — if the driver is a member of Lawrence OnBoard– or the license plate of the vehicle.

There are other details about the program that you can read here, but I’ve pretty much given you the gist of it. Supporters of the program point out that the city’s public transit system is a bit limited in area and doesn’t run on Sundays. Plus, the T doesn’t really aid people who have to make a trip outside the city limits. Certainly, there are ways people can arrange to carpool to Topeka or Kansas City, for example, but the OnBoard officials point out that such arrangements often really limit people’s flexibility.

“With a system like Lawrence OnBoard, the carpooling is done from the side of the road at the convenience of the rider, and the time, effort and expense for the driver is minimal,” according to the Lawrence OnBoard brochure.

Organizers of Lawrence OnBoard have been doing some testing of the concept over the last few months. They report they’ve attempted 121 rides and have been unsuccessful only six times. The 23 riders that took part in the experiment travelled a total of 573 miles. The average time they spent waiting alongside the road was about seven minutes per ride.

O’Brien and a KU professor, Anne Dunning, have been invited to present a scholarly paper on the program at the annual meeting of the 2014 Transportation Research Board.

I have no idea how Lawrence city commissioners will react to this idea, which seems like the sort of thing that could add to Lawrence’s progressive/funky (or you can choose the appropriate adjective) reputation. We’ll find out Tuesday.

In the meantime, I’ve got bigger issues to figure out. Is it spelled “Acapulco” or “Acapolco”? And if I wore a swimsuit, do you think that would increase or decrease the amount of time I would have to wait for a ride?

In other news and notes from around town:

• Commissioners also will be discussing more traditional public transportation at Tuesday’s meeting. As part of their consent agenda, commissioners are scheduled to approve a new five-year contract with MV Transportation to continue running the city’s public transit system. The new contract will run through 2018.

Based on a city memo describing the contract, it appears the rate MV will charge the city per revenue hour will average out at about $35.80 during the term of the contract, which is up about 8 percent from what the average revenue per hour rate was during the last contract term. The city is expecting to pay MV between $3.4 million and $3.6 million per year during the term of the new contract.

The payments to MV represent only a portion of what it costs the city to run the transit system. Based on the city memo, transit officials are expecting it will cost between $5.8 million and $6.0 million per year to run the transit system over the next five years. In addition to the operating contract, the city also must pay for fuel, major repairs to buses, the purchase of new buses, and various other operational expenses.

The city funds the system with about $3 million a year in local sales taxes and about $2.8 million a year in federal and state grants. Fares paid by riders add about $330,000 per year.

• The Rock Chalk Park sports complex in northwest Lawrence has been in the news again lately. City commissioners in the next couple of weeks will have to figure out how to resolve concerns a neighbor of the property has about lighting. But this week, commissioners will continue spending money to outfit the city’s 181,000-square-foot recreation center at the site. If you remember, the city is agreeing to pay about $22.5 million to a group led by Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel to build the project. The $22.5 million includes the construction of the actual recreation center, and through an unusual agreement, the city also is paying for essentially all the parking, roads and other such infrastructure that serves both the recreation center and the various sports stadiums and field that will be used by KU and Fritzel.

The $22.5 million, as anticipated, doesn’t include all the items needed to equip the center. At their Tuesday meeting, commissioners are set to accept a $74,215 bid from Overfield Corp. to install security cameras in the building and parking lots. The city also will accept a series of bids totaling $44,300 to install a phone system. Last week, the city approved about a $45,000 bid to install bleachers in the building.

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