Vice Mayor Janet Miller’s 11th-hour cuts to spare the city’s bus system won a split decision Tuesday before the Wichita City Council.
The council voted 4-3 to adopt Miller’s three-pronged plan to maintain transit service for the next year, a self-described Band-Aid while the city searches for more transit funding. The vote means the Westside connector and a special Goodwill bus, two of the city’s least-used routes, and peak service stops will operate unchanged this year.
Instead, repair and renovation of Kennedy Plaza outside of Century II downtown will be delayed for a year, saving $250,000. Citywide street maintenance will be cut $180,000 out of a budget of $15.7 million. And neighborhood cleanups will be cut in half for a savings of $125,000. City staff said the plaza, located outside Century II on Douglas, would have been freshened and repaired from damage caused by freight trucks traveling across it to the convention center’s loading docks.
The cleanup and street maintenance cuts — the latter about $25,000 to $30,000 from each of the city’s six council districts — were not popular with Miller’s fellow council members, who initially sought to delay a vote on the compromise proposal until other short- and long-term solutions for the city’s $500,000 transit budget shortfall could be identified.
“This is a temporary solution until we can come up with a longer-term solution,” Miller said. “In either case, whatever we do is temporary. We can reduce service as proposed but that’s temporary, too, because that won’t be enough.”
After an appeal from Mayor Carl Brewer, who called transit a citywide issue, he and council members James Clendenin and Pete Meitzner stood with Miller. Council members Michael O’Donnell, Jeff Longwell and Lavonta Williams voted no.
The action came as residents spoke passionately in support of a dedicated sales tax to raise money for transit, many advocating a 1-cent sales tax similar to the tax that paid for the construction of Intrust Bank Arena. Residents showed tears and anger as they blasted the council for its surprise at ridership declines without improving the transit system and for its perceived favoritism toward developers.
“Millions of dollars for movers and shakers and you can’t come up with a half-million dollars for people who really need it,” said Myron Ackerman of Wichita. “It’s disgusting.”
After the meeting, at least one pro-transit resident said the vote left her with “mixed emotions.”
“I’m a little bit concerned about losing the neighborhood cleanups,” said Janet Wilson of Wichita. “I think they’re vital.”
“But at the same time, it was the best decision that could be made today,” she said.
On Friday, the city’s transit advisory board unveiled tentative plans to put a quarter-cent sales tax on the November ballot, a request requiring council approval. Those plans are expected to be finalized later this week during a transit board meeting. However, some council members say the sales tax already is on several wish lists around town, including downtown redevelopment and a war chest for industrial real estate development, recruitment and retention.
The transit system’s 2012 deficit has been sliced from $800,000 to $500,000, largely through a $200,000 federal grant for fuel.
The cuts would have affected the west-side connector that serves 52 riders a day and a special Goodwill bus to 37th and Oliver serving seven to 10 riders a day. The system also would have gone to an hourlong interval for stops during peak times, instead of 30-minute intervals, affecting about 600 riders a day. The transit staff planned to provide service to the Goodwill clients using a smaller vehicle, transit director Mike Vinson said.
“These are the least impactful service reduction scenarios staff has been unable to come up with,” Vinson said. “We passed on the elimination of Saturday service, based on the public comment last year that this is not something the public or the council wanted.”
Vinson painted a dark picture about the condition of the bus system: Ridership dropped 7.7 percent on the buses when fares were raised 50 cents last year before rebounding as gasoline prices spiked this winter. And although bus ridership is spiraling in some cities because of gas prices, there’s little hope of a repeat in Wichita.
Clendenin confronted Vinson, asking why no options to increase ridership have been publicly discussed.
“Most of the options to increase ridership have a price tag along with it. It’s the ability to increase service levels,” Vinson said. “We’re operating a bare bones system in comparison to other cities. We’re operating at a very low budget level ... We’re living on a sad budget. The only way we can gain additional ridership is to increase the service base. We have to improve the product before we can increase ridership.”
Citizens supported Vinson, advocating a grid system and a steady source of income, like a dedicated sales tax or property tax.
“The bus service is a public service. That means it’s for all of us, and all of us should be able to share in providing it,” said Kathy Dittmer of Wichita.
“You get what you pay for. We’re not paying for an adequate metro bus system. And we might be one of two or three cities in the nation assuming the burden of a public transportation system falls on the people who need it.”