November 1, 2013

Transit director: Wichita bus plan will need ‘predictable funding’

A plan to grow the city’s bus system by bringing riders closer to the places they work, play and seek medical attention won endorsement from Wichita’s transit advisory board on Friday.

A plan to grow the city’s bus system by bringing riders closer to the places they work, play and seek medical attention won endorsement from Wichita’s transit advisory board on Friday.

Now, the issue goes to the Wichita City Council and the public with one key question: How to pay for a public input-driven plan with a price tag of $25.7 million annually, almost twice the current $13.6 million operating budget.

Transit director Steve Spade said the plan is tailored around the results of community engagement sessions. It includes:

•  More frequent peak-hour service on existing routes.
•  Extension of routes east and west to respond to community growth and development, targeting medical facilities, workplaces, apartment complexes and major shopping destinations.
•  Crosstown routes in a grid system to reduce travel time.
•  Longer operating hours, including evening and Sunday service.
•  Growing the system to serve Sedgwick County, including the possibility of express routes to Wichita suburbs, and regional connections to neighboring counties.

Unlike last year, when the transit board asked directly for a sales tax to fund the system, the current plan makes no direct funding recommendations.

“The current model relies on City of Wichita General Fund transfers, which have remained constant,” Spade’s report reads. “This is inadequate to sustain the existing system.

“The City of Wichita should consider a predictable funding source for transit, such as local option sales tax, to provide long-term support for the growth of the system.”

“We don’t recommend a sales tax directly,” Spade told the board. “We just need predictable funding every year. It’s not our job to recommend funding to the council.”

The system is projected to run out of money in 2015 after obtaining an estimated $1.8 million line of credit from the city to stay afloat until then.

Spade said the system’s costs have been rising about 6.3 percent annually since 2003, while city funding has remained stable. The bus system is not covered under the city’s liability fund – although City Manager Robert Layton said earlier this year that such a move is possible – so any accident-related settlements involving buses come out of the transit budget.

The fallout from those tightening budgets over the past decade has been service cuts, declining ridership, an aging fleet and limited bus maintenance.

“It’s a system that has not kept up with the growth and development of the city,” Spade said.

“We’ve been reducing services and raising prices,” he said. “I don’t know a CEO of a business that comes out of financial problems who does that. People’s travel habits have changed, and we’re just not able to keep up.”

City Council member Lavonta Williams called transit funding essential, but said it was “the million-dollar question, too.”

“Are we looking at a sales tax? We have to look under every rock, in every nook and cranny, to see how best to manage this,” Williams said.

“You go visit other cities and it doesn’t bother people to ride. If at the least we can lengthen the time of bus service, it would be absolutely critical to people and jobs, especially when aviation picks up and we get multiple shifts. It’s also essential for our older residents, who would use the bus for church on Sundays and who could get to the doctor.”

Advisory board members advocated further community engagement, targeting potential business supporters – and the likely opponents of any initiative to improve the service, such as Americans for Prosperity.

And they bemoaned the lack of a marketing director, and a marketing budget in Spade’s office, to take their case for upgraded bus service to the public. Spade said most municipal transit operations devote 3 percent of their annual budget to marketing.

“We’re probably going to have to take this on in phases,” Williams said, “but I’m hoping the city as a whole will understand that it’s all of our responsibility to address our transit issues. It’ll help the entire city economy when everyone can get back and forth to work.”

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