Wichita to offer free bus rides in effort to increase ridership, cut pollution

04/22/2014 12:16 PM

08/06/2014 11:00 AM

First, there was Fair Fares for competitively priced Wichita air flights. Now, there’s Free Fares to help combat air pollution by putting more riders on city buses.

The $99,000 Free Fares program, developed between the Public Works & Utilities Air Quality Program and Wichita Transit, will devote almost $80,000 in state grant money and $19,000 from the transit and air quality budgets to free bus rides June 16 through 21, including Dump the Pump Day on June 19.

Free rides also will be offered any time the city is under an ozone alert, indicating that air pollution levels are at or near federal limits. The project ends Oct. 31.

The goal, city officials say, is to get Wichitans out of their cars and onto already-running buses, thus reducing ozone-forming emissions.

“I don’t think the environmental issues here have been played as strongly as it should be,” said Ron Terzian, who chairs the city’s transit advisory board. “Because, if we have to face penalties or whatever for ozone noncompliance, then that’s a bad deal. Any little step is a good thing.”

Mayor Carl Brewer hopes the free fare program will familiarize more Wichitans with an improving transit system.

“I’m going to be very interested if people use it, even if we provide rides for free,” the mayor said. “If we can get people to ride the bus, it will reduce the number of cars on the street. We’ve seen in other cities how it reduces traffic and improves environmental issues.”

Brewer said the transit system’s biggest challenge remains expanding ridership. Wichita remains an automobile community.

“I talked to the Realtors yesterday, and I asked them how many had taken public transportation. Nobody raised their hand,” the mayor said. “Five years? Nobody raised their hand.

“This is going to be a snapshot in time, basically. We have to keep this program going for an extended period of time so people can become accustomed to it and adjust to it becoming available.”

Wichitans view the city’s transit system as a “sinkhole for money” because they don’t need it, Terzian said.

“I talk to a lot of people around the community about transit, and their assessment is ‘Ain’t my problem. I’ve got a car,’ ” he said. “If we can get people to ride the buses in this program who don’t normally, it might open some eyes.”

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