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Chase M. Billingham: State should support transit

  • Published Wednesday, August 28, 2013, at 12 a.m.

Like other public transit systems in cities nationwide, Wichita’s transit agency faces significant maintenance costs, huge operating expenses, and unreliable and insufficient finances. The agency will be financially insolvent by 2015 unless new sources of revenue emerge to offset the looming budget shortfalls (Aug. 23 Eagle).

In their drive to find new revenue to keep the buses running, though, local officials are thinking too narrowly. They acknowledge that the agency needs more revenue but seem resigned that all new funding must originate from local sources (particularly higher property and sales taxes).

Already, local revenue sources and fares account for about half of Wichita Transit’s operating budget. In recent years, generous federal funding has made up much of the rest of the budget, but there is no reason to expect that such high federal funding levels will continue into the future.

Meanwhile, the state contributes a relatively small share of the agency’s budget. This should change.

Wichita is the state’s largest city, and the Wichita region is among the prime drivers of the state’s economy. Research has shown that robust public transit service can spur economic growth and downtown redevelopment, reduce traffic congestion, and expand residents’ access to jobs and resources. Reinvigorating growth and development in Wichita would provide benefits to all Kansans, and so improved public transit access should be a priority for all, not just those who use the service.

The region’s state legislators should look into the possibility of creating a stable and robust funding stream for Wichita Transit and other urban and rural transit agencies. This could be funded through a consistent annual allocation of state sales-tax or gasoline-tax revenue specifically designated for public transit.

In order to justify greater support from the state, however, Wichita Transit needs to improve. In a recent survey conducted for the city by ETC Institute, 85 percent of respondents claimed that it was important to fund public transportation, and less than one-third were definitely opposed to the idea of raising taxes or fees to fund transit service. Yet the same survey found that 88 percent of respondents rarely or never use the city’s buses. When asked why not, the most popular response was that “service is not available near my home.”

If Wichita Transit wants support from the city and the state, it should work to be more useful to residents of the region. That will mean expanding routes to neighborhoods that are not currently served by the buses, creating commuter lines to connect outlying suburbs with the urban core, increasing the frequency and reliability of service and, perhaps most important, reorienting the current bus routes.

With some effort, Wichita Transit can create a better system of buses that will serve the city and the region well into the future. In order to do so, though, it will need a stronger financial commitment from those benefiting from the service – not just bus riders, but the entire state.

Chase M. Billingham is an assistant professor of sociology at Wichita State University.

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