Wichita bus system faces possible $800,000 deficit this year

Wichita’s transit system is in financial trouble, City Manager Robert Layton told the City Council Tuesday.

But at the same time, transit consultants and advocates told the council the city should consider expanding and upgrading its transit system, potentially doubling the $10 million annual price tag.

Layton provided the bad news: The transit system is careening toward an $800,000 budget deficit for 2012.

Income from fares is expected to be higher than last year but about $300,000 less than originally budgeted because ridership has declined more than predicted after a fare increase last fall. The city also had planned to use transit contingency reserve funds to shore up this year’s budget but instead used all of that reserve money — about $325,000 — to balance out last year’s transit deficit.

Wichita transit fares increased 50 cents in September to help the bus service meet a $1 million budget deficit. The increases were approved by the council last July as part of a compromise to avoid cutting Saturday service.

“It is not a good picture, and it has to be addressed sooner rather than later,” Layton said. “The longer we wait, the more drastic changes will be needed in 2012.”

Those changes cannot include another council bailout, Layton said.

“We are in a difficult period because of limitations in the general fund,” he said. “We don’t have the ability to bail out the transit fund with property taxes any more than you’ve already committed.”

The issue is headed back to the city’s transit advisory council for recommendations on how to immediately address the shortfall.

Layton’s report grew out of a detailed presentation on future transit enhancements by consultant Mark Swope of Olsson Associates. In it, Swope recommended several options, including a “more robust plan” as requested by the public in surveys. That system, at a cost of $21 million annually, would include communitywide coverage and service on Sunday and later in the evening.

That was the consultant’s high-end recommendation. Other proposals and costs included a streamlined version of the current plan focusing on high demand areas, $15 million annually; peak period commuting service from the downtown transit hub running north and south into the suburbs, $690,000 annually; and new north and south routes off the existing system into the suburbs, $2.5 million annually. Without action, Swope said, the city will need to pony up another $2 million annually to maintain the current system, given rising costs.

“Obviously, the cost is troubling,” council member Michael O’Donnell said. “The first example is more than twice what we’re funding, which isn’t reasonable.”

Council member Jeff Longwell endorsed the idea of a regional transit system, but voiced doubt that the city’s bus system can be “all things to all people.” He proposes a targeted transit system that could lure users to live in its area, similar to the “L” in Chicago or public transit in Washington, D.C.

“I think there should be another option out there, a robust transit system for a smaller area of town operating similar to light rail in a larger city and giving citizens some options if they choose to live near such a robust transit system,” he said.

Swope emerged from a public comment period that concluded last week with a detailed and costly list of transit improvements that the public would like to see:

Better and more modern buses, with Wi-fi, GPS and digital marquees that run on alternative energy.

Layton, however, was clear: There is no property tax money left for transit, either to bail out the current system or finance a massive expansion.

“Given the costs associated with the options, property taxes cannot support today’s transit system much less any of the alternatives listed there,” Layton said. “There needs to be some discussion of community priorities.”

Many cities turn to sales tax revenues and state and federal funding to supplement fares for operating expenses. In Wichita, only about 20 percent of costs come from fares. City officials estimated last year in an Eagle story that a quarter-cent sales tax could generate almost $18 million for transit and other projects.

Swope made no funding recommendations for any expansion of the city’s transit system. But he did mention a sales tax increase, a subject that drew no council response.

“Very few communities operate a transit system without one,” he said.

Mayor Carl Brewer endorsed “taking the issue back to the public.”

“We need to hear from the community,” the mayor said. “It doesn’t service us if we can’t change the attitude of the citizens to riding. Only thing we’d be doing is having a plan.”

Related stories from Wichita Eagle