Despite its minimal hours and service, Wichita Transit helps many who ride its buses not only get around but get by. Their need should be paramount as elected officials decide what to do about Wichita Transit, including whether to pursue sustainable funding past 2014 as part of a broader plan to raise the sales tax.
The city’s problem is that Wichita Transit’s $13 million annual budget currently depends on a short-term dedication of city reserves and unstable federal and state funding. It will take a new local revenue stream to keep even the current system going, without accounting for the fleet’s needs or director Steve Spade’s plans for new routes and schedules.
And though City Hall’s libertarian critics have ideas of value to offer on some policy debates, this may not be one of them. The remedy proposed by the Wichita chapter of Americans for Prosperity was that Wichita encourage private companies to provide public transportation. Never mind that “privately operated bus systems disappeared in the 1960s,” as Spade put it, or that most citizens in metropolitan areas would consider providing public transportation a core government function.
An article in the Sunday Eagle told some of the personal stories among the system’s riders, whose reliance on the buses is part of their fragile grasp on employment and economic stability.
For one woman who lives in south Wichita but works in northeast Wichita, a bus breakdown means she could be late to pick up her kids – and at risk of having school officials call child-welfare services.
One man who lives at Central and Topeka but works near 21st and Woodlawn – a 6-mile, 13-minute drive by car – said he spends 90 minutes getting home, because buses are running only hourly and he must transfer at the downtown transit center.
Another man spends two hours getting from Oaklawn to his job in far north Wichita, but must get a ride when his shift ends at 11:30 p.m. – long after the buses stop running each night.
“The ones like me who want to better themselves have to take the bus system to have a chance. Without it, we’re lost,” said one of the profiled bus users.
The elected leaders who will help decide the fate of the bus system can’t fully know what these riders go through. They can’t predict how better routes and timetables might facilitate employment and promote self-sufficiency. Nor can they realistically give Wichita a system that lives up to the Latin root of the word “bus” – “omnibus,” meaning “for all.”
But the need for reliable public transportation is strong in Wichita, even if the bus system isn’t. Wichita must find a reliable and responsible way to provide and pay for that system.