Wichita City Council to gather public opinion on future of transit system

Work on the future of Wichita’s bus system is moving into high gear.

City Council members recently received a report on how the transit system’s future affects the health of residents.

And this week, officials will seek public opinion on the future of the system with two scheduled meetings, one at 5 p.m. Wednesday at Northwest High School and another at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday at the city’s downtown bus station.

The goal is to collect public opinion through November on “where people want to go and how we get them there,” then take a recommendation to the city’s transit advisory board and the council in December, said city transit director Steve Spade, who has been in Wichita almost a year. The transit system will run out of money in 2015, after obtaining an estimated $1.8 million from the city in a line of credit to stay afloat.

As Spade puts it, transit officials know where the “dots” are on the city’s underserved west side – where people live, work, shop and visit the doctor.

“The challenge now is to connect them,” he said.

The community engagement process – and Spade’s leadership – are being praised by council members as a good first step toward solidifying the bus system’s future.

“I couldn’t be more thrilled with the direction transit is going,” said council member Jeff Longwell, who represents the west side. “Steve knows more about transit than anyone we’ve ever had in Wichita, and we’re seeing the results of that.”

The focus of the study and meeting is: What do Wichita residents want from a transit system? And what are they willing to do to pay for it? Are they willing to devote more property tax to transit, a move that would mean significant cuts in other city services in the current “no new taxes” environment? Do they want to vote on a sales tax to stabilize and possibly expand transit, an idea endorsed in 2012 by the city’s transit advisory board?

And where does a strengthened Wichita system go regionally? The Kansas Health Institute’s health impact analysis on transit found that transportation options, such as the city’s bus system, can improve or decrease access to health care for Wichitans. Specifically, access to reliable transit for residents should make doctor visits more likely than emergency room calls.

The report calls for the location of bus stops near health care offices and specialty clinics, particularly those that serve children – an issue with some medical services moving with homeowners to the suburbs. It recommends similar route retooling for employment and grocery shopping, including a suggestion that city planners locate future grocery stores near transit routes.

And it points out the environmental benefits of the bus system: cleaner air and potentially fewer auto accidents.

Those are all conclusions that fit with what Spade considers an “origin- and destination-oriented” transit system that he’s trying to design.

Spade’s plan for west Wichita is a route that goes out along Maple and north up Maize Road to New Market Square, and a West Central route that winds northwest from downtown to the same destination, a largely unserved retail centerpiece of northwest Wichita.

“We want to take people out west from downtown, but we also want to bring people downtown from out west,” Spade said.

The new west-side routes replace a little-used connector route that barely exited the core of the city and a two-way route out to the west side that didn’t serve major residential or retail centers.

The council will, in December, try to settle on a way to pay for the reconfigured system. Meanwhile, Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner joined Longwell in praising Spade’s work.

“He’s got a good handle on where people are and where they need to go,” Meitzner said. “We haven’t seen the final details of Steve’s plans, but I’m certainly happy where we are now.”

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