Wichita officials are proposing to tap a reserve fund for $700,000 to keep city buses rolling on Saturdays for the next two years — while raising fares 50 cents, to $1.75 a ride.
That alternative replaces an earlier recommendation by City Manager Robert Layton to raise the fares and cut Saturday service to reduce the cost of operating the system. The earlier plan provoked a strong reaction from bus users who said it would keep them from shopping and running necessary errands on the weekend.
The new proposal was announced Friday by budget officer Mark Manning at a news conference to distribute copies of the city's annual budget to the media.
The plan for preserving Saturday service will need the City Council's OK to tap into the city's "permanent reserve fund."
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The $1.8 million was set aside by the council starting in 2008 and is not part of the city's $22.6 million general fund reserve, Manning said.
If it can get through the next two years, expected federal grant funding should put the transit system on firmer financial footing, Manning said.
In addition, he said, the city is planning to begin replacing buses in 2014 and expects to substantially reduce fuel expenditures by switching to buses powered by natural gas.
Rider reaction mixed
Patrons using the bus system Friday were pleased that the Saturday service appears to have been rescued.
They were less than pleased about the planned fare increase.
"Retaining Saturdays is always a good thing," said Jenifer Robertson, 36, of Wichita, who rides daily to work and shop. "I wish they'd do Sundays, too, because it would help with getting to church and getting from church."
But, she added, "Them upping the fare on buses is, yeah, it's absolutely ridiculous."
She said it's getting to the point where it's almost cheaper to pay a friend to drive her.
"You budget your money, but it's not enough," she said. "There's a lot of places that I need to go to that I don't go to because I can't afford it. So I end up walking."
Nick Brown of Wichita, who said he is unemployed, was among the 200 people who attended a public meeting late last month to protest the plan to cut Saturday service.
He said he needs the bus to get to meetings with his parole officer and to the medical office where he sells his blood plasma to earn a few dollars.
"For that buck-75 (fare) you can go out there and get a 42-ounce drink from QuikTrip," he said. "I mean seriously. And you still have money left over for like a candy bar or something, as opposed to getting on a bus...
"A lot of people out there do not have a stable source of income," he added. "How are they expecting us to pay these extra costs? It's hard to get a bus ticket as it is."
Two City Council members attended the news conference and said they think some simple improvements can expand the bus system beyond its current role as transit of last resort for the poor, the disabled, the elderly and others who can't drive where they need to go.
"I would venture to say that 95 percent of the people who ride our transit system have to," said council member Janet Miller. "They don't have another option."
She and council member Lavonta Williams acknowledged it would be difficult to get people to ride buses by choice in a city where nothing is more than 10 to 20 minutes away by car.
"I have ridden the bus," Williams said. "Would it be my choice? If I had to, I would."
But Williams said some of the improvement to the system could be as simple as putting up timetable signs at the bus stops.
"I won't sit out there and wait on a bus and not know when it's going to get there," Williams said.
"As we look at the bus, I don't say that the bus is just for the poor and those that are disabled. I think it goes beyond that and I think more people would ride once we make those types of changes that many of us have been looking at for quite a while."
She said the takeaway from the controversy over dropping Saturday service is: "What we heard from the community is they don't mind the increase if we're going to also increase service.
"Mike (transit director Michael Vinson) and I have looked many times at how to extend the hours. That would be something that would be worth looking into."
Miller emphasized that no major public bus system pays its costs, but it's a service cities need to provide, like police and fire protection.
But she warned to mix caution with the optimism.
"I'm very happy that we have a solution for the next two years, but drawing on reserves is not a long-term solution," she said. "If the federal funds come through in 2013, that will be good news. If they don't for some reason, we'll still be in a position to look for a long-term funding solution."
Hearing dates set
Public hearings on the proposed budget are slated for July 19 and Aug. 2.
The council will vote on the budget Aug. 9 after a final public hearing.
The $549 million budget does not increase the city's mill levy.
In order to balance the budget, Layton is proposing an early retirement program similar to Sedgwick County's, fuel conservation efforts and the likely delay of a new downtown library that had been budgeted for construction next year.
The city also plans to develop new policies for how suspects are charged by police.
In some cases where the law allows discretion, such as driving without proof of insurance, defendants may be cited instead of being booked into jail.
Those measures are aimed at limiting how much the city pays Sedgwick County to house inmates in the county jail.