Wichita Transit board wants public vote on sales tax to support bus system

Wichita voters will be asked this fall to bail out the city’s flagging transit system with a quarter-cent sales tax — if the city’s transit advisory board has its way.

The transit panel unveiled plans Friday to ask the City Council to put a quarter-cent sales tax question on the November general election ballot. The tax dedicated to transit would, if approved, generate upwards of $14 million annually to patch the bus system’s $500,000 annual shortfall and would end after 10 years.

The proposal generated enough objections from board members Friday to require a week of tweaking. The transit board has scheduled a 10 a.m. May 18 special meeting to consider it again.

“We’re at a sweet spot with the recent reductions in service, the general election in November and the copious amounts of public input to the city’s consultants,” transit board chairman Ron Terzian told his group.

Transit board members were explicit in their criticism of the city’s bus service Friday, at various points calling the system “in a state of shambles” and “inadequate to meet even the basic needs of the citizens of Wichita.”

As were the system’s users Friday afternoon at the transit center.

“The city’s bus service here, it’s not good,” said John Tolliver, who moved to Wichita almost three months ago from Kansas City. “Twenty one hours in Kansas City. Thing shuts down at 1:30 in the morning and it’s back out on the street at 4:30.”

Use the sales tax money for those longer hours, Tolliver and several other users said.

“Longer hours. Everybody will answer same way. Longer hours, like maybe 5 in the morning until midnight,” said Jerome Armstrong of Wichita.

Wichita buses run from 6:15 a.m. to 6:20 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 7:15 a.m. to 5:20 p.m. Saturday.

The sales tax initiative comes on the heels of proposed transit service cutbacks that will go before the council on Tuesday. According to City Manager Robert Layton, the elimination of 30-minute service intervals during peak hours will save approximately $400,000. The elimination of the city’s Goodwill bus route will save $20,000 and the elimination of the westside connector route will save about $80,000.

The sales tax request brought a tepid response from city officials, who say they’re trying to prop up the 2012 budget shortfall before they worry about the future of the system.

“We’re still in the early stages and we’re still looking at what other cities are doing,” Mayor Carl Brewer said.

The fundamental problem with the Wichita system, Brewer acknowledged, is its lack of a dedicated public funding source beyond the city’s general fund — such as the dedicated sales tax or dedicated property tax that cities like Omaha and Des Moines use to prop up systems that can run at a deficit.

“I see transit as a problem that won’t go away,” Brewer said.

Vice Mayor Janet Miller said Friday she’s hopeful Wichita residents will see the need for better bus service.

“I do think that as a community, we are going to have to look for an additional dedicated funding source for transit, and we’re going to need to do it soon,” she said. “I’m very concerned about trying to eliminate a half-million-dollars worth of service on the backs of people who depend on that service every day.

“I’m hoping the community will understand that our neighbors, Wichita residents, depend on transit for getting to work, getting everywhere they need to go. It’s an important city service.”

Layton, however, was noncommittal, saying his office is focusing on the current budget shortfall.

The city is aggressive in its pursuit of federal grants to supplement the transit budget, but transit director Mike Vinson said those funds cannot be used for operational expenses.

“The problem for us is that there are very few grants made available for operating assistance, where we need them the most, and those available have been generally tied to very large projects and have generally been awarded in the largest metropolitan areas,” Vinson said.

“On the other hand, there are many capital grants available and most other transit systems are aggressive in going after them. While we have pursued them as needed, we generally have available federal funds to support our current system’s capital needs but we cannot use them to cover operating costs. Omaha and Des Moines are in a different situation than Wichita in that they do not have adequate funds for capital replacement and they regularly apply for the myriad of capital grants available.

“Bottom line, we have been as aggressive as possible in the pursuit of the almost non-existent grants that support operating costs,” he said.

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