Weekend riders say Wichita should keep bus service on Saturdays

As the South Main bus pulls out of the downtown Wichita Transit Center at 2:20 p.m. Saturday, 26 riders fill it to near capacity.

They are going to and coming from work, school or the grocery store today. One woman is headed to her niece's birthday party.

These riders have heard about the city's proposal to eliminate Saturday service and raise fares from $1.25 to $1.75.

Some of them don't have cars, they say, and others don't have driver's licenses. They say they're hard-working people who can't afford to take a cab when they need to go somewhere.

Some of them plan to attend a public hearing at City Hall on Thursday, when the proposal will be discussed. They plan to tell city officials that cutting Saturday service is a bad idea that will only hurt the city's most vulnerable residents.

"You might think people who ride the bus are the dregs of society," said Lloyd Robertson, who is traveling to south Wichita to see his girlfriend. "They're not. They're the backbone of society.

"I think it's terrible that they don't run them on Sunday," he said. "People depend on these buses. It's the real people of the world — the everyday people of the world — that it'll affect."

Instead of cutting back on service, he said, the city should enact a quarter-cent sales tax and improve it.

"If they would better the transportation system a little, more people would use it," he said. "How many people who work second shift would take a bus if they had the opportunity? But they don't have the opportunity."

David Head, who is riding the bus home after a workout at the YMCA, said he plans to attend the Thursday night meeting. He depends on the bus to get around, he said, and the city always seems to be trying to raise the fares.

"This is the third raise in, what, two years?" he asked. "It's always fuel prices."

Head said he read about the City Council's decision last week to invest $87,000 in a study that will tell it more about what Wichitans want from their bus system.

"Why pay $87,000 when you're going to go ahead and eliminate Saturday service without seeing the results?" he asked.

He said that when bus service stops on weekdays at 6:20 p.m., he's left without transportation.

"My day ends at 6:20 unless I can catch a ride with somebody," he said.

Rising costs

As the city faces a $1 million budget shortfall this year, higher diesel fuel prices are forcing Wichita Transit to spend $500,000 more on fuel this year than it did in 2010.

Transit system officials last year were able to charge nearly $400,000 in fuel costs to a grant that is no longer available.

Eliminating Saturday service, they say, will save $170,000 in 2011 and $510,000 in 2012.

The 50-cent fare increase, without eliminating Saturday service, would result in a savings of about $200,000 in 2011 and $550,000 in 2012.

The City Council will have the final say. Transit officials have suggested making the changes effective Sept. 3.

City buses provide 182,000 rides a year on Saturdays.

On the road

Gregory Guerrero is at the wheel as the South Main bus pulls out of the Wichita Transit Center at 214 S. Topeka. It's a 1 1/2-hour trip that winds through south Wichita, reaching as far as 55th Street South before looping back. Guerrero said two buses are being used today to cover the route.

Air conditioning keeps the bus comfortably cool as the temperature outside hovers around 90. A woman's recorded voice tells riders as they begin their trip, "This is South Main southbound."

The same voice will announce the stops as the bus makes its way toward south Wichita.

A sign above the riders warns, "No food, drink or foul language (cussing) on a Wichita Transit Authority vehicle!! Violators will not be allowed on the buses!!"

A nearby placard asks, "Need Extra cash?" Another tells those with diabetes, arthritis or high cholesterol that they can get paid for taking part in medical tests.

The destination for many of these riders is the Walmart store at Broadway and Pawnee. That's where Tjay Howard is headed.

Howard lives at the Wichita Work Release Center and relies on the bus to go everywhere — particularly to his weekday job testing microchips. He said he has to shop for groceries on weekends.

"If they kill it on Saturday — that's the only day I can go," he said.

Amanda Anzaldua said she lives near 21st and Oliver and attends school at ITT Technical Institute at 32nd and Rock Road. She and her husband share a car, she said, and she usually has to take the bus.

On the weekends, Anzaldua said, she probably rides the bus every other Saturday. Today's she's headed to a birthday party for a niece who lives in south Wichita.

After dropping most passengers off at Walmart, the South Main bus is nearly empty as it continues south.

On the way back, while traveling west on 47th Street South, it stops to pick up Walt Trusdale, who's carrying a box of donated groceries he's taking to a friend who is staying at a South Broadway motel. He, too, worries about losing Saturday service.

"If they raise it another quarter, I could understand that," he said. "They have fuel costs.

"But take away the Saturday route? That's going to hurt a whole bunch of people. This is the only way I have to get around."

Back at the station

Inside the Transit Center, people seem more concerned about losing Saturday bus service than the proposed 50-cent fare increase.

Henry Hofmeister, who is heading to Wichita State University, said his weekend access to the campus will be cut off without Saturday service.

"It's a 20-mile walk, down there and back," he said.

Janice Teiner and Donna McClellan are shopping for groceries. For those who work weekdays, Teiner said, Saturday is the only day for grocery shopping.

"That's why we're here; it's Saturday," she said.

McClellan agreed.

"I'm new to the area, and this is only way I can get around," she said. "We can't walk to the store. And we can't be constantly asking people for rides."

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