Transit system a lifeline to jobs for some Wichitans

The Wichita Eagle

For Crystal Alvarado, Wichita Transit is a critical link as she builds a new life here.

It is the bootstraps that Everett Cash and Mike Chan are using to rebound from a divorce, a critical illness and a bad economy.

Three different people with three different stories and one common, yet tenuous and fraying thread: Without the city’s bus system, the single mom and the two workers say they face economic hardship.

City buses are their lifeline to jobs, to groceries, to health care, the two men say. It’s the only way Alvarado says she can get a job to feed her two kids and eventually buy the car she needs to live in Wichita.

Although the system logs about 2 million rides a year, Wichita city officials estimate that at least 70 percent of the city’s residents have never set foot on a city bus. That puts Alvarado, Cash and Chan in the minority.

And as the City Council scrambles for enough money to keep the bare-bones system afloat – or to, as council member Janet Miller says, “actually make it useful” – the trio has something to say to Wichita taxpayers.

“You make transit better and more people can get jobs,” said Cash, who works five or six days a week in the kitchen at HCR Manor Care. “I understand that sometimes there are people who don’t want to work.

“But you gotta understand that the ones like me who want to better themselves have to take the bus system to have a chance. Without it, we’re lost.

“All I’m asking is, help us help ourselves.”

The state of transit

The fate of Wichita Transit hangs in the balance as city officials kick off 2015 budget discussions this winter.

The system – riddled with budget problems, aging buses in disrepair and routes that don’t connect riders with key destinations – has no dedicated local funding source beyond 2014.

And, although new director Steve Spade has developed new schedules, routes and maintenance plans since he took over a little more than a year ago, even today’s no-frills system is in jeopardy.

“Do we have the funding for transit? Absolutely not,” Miller said. “Once we get to the end of ’14, we will no longer have the funding to support transit at even the woefully inadequate current level of service.”

The immediate problem is two-fold: City Hall contributes $3.9 million of a roughly $13 million transit budget, which includes fares and a loan from reserves expected to run out this year.

Then there’s the issue of eroding state and federal funding. The system receives $1.8 million from Kansas and $6.9 million from the federal government.

There’s significant commitment on the City Council to find a solution – and perhaps even expand transit service. Miller leads that effort.

Council members are considering transit as part of a broader sales tax initiative that could go to voters as early as this fall.

“I absolutely see transit as a core service, just like I see police, fire, street maintenance and water utilities as core services,” she said.

Building a life in Wichita

Alvarado and her two kids are newcomers to Wichita. She said they moved here in March from New Hampshire with no idea about the automobile-centric way of life in Kansas.

So she climbs onto a northeast route bus – a clean bus, one of the new ones as the city begins to replace its outmoded fleet – with a group of sullen riders, several of whom ducked as The Eagle shot pictures and interviewed her on a starkly cold winter afternoon.

“I mean, in New Hampshire, you don’t need a car,” said Alvarado, a tall, blond woman with a harried look. “You get everywhere on public transit, or you take a taxi and ride around with each other. It’s pretty small up there.”

Her immediate problem: She works at Larksfield Place in northeast Wichita, but lives in the south part of the city near Harry and Estelle, with kids in two different schools.

“I have to have this job. It’s a good job,” she said.

But her face falls as she talks about the daily stress of getting around Wichita. She spends between two and three hours every day working her way home on the city’s bus system to pick up her kids.

“I have to take the East Harry bus to Linwood and another bus to Pawnee to go to the day care,” she said.

And it’s a tight schedule, getting off work on time at mid-afternoon to meet the bus at 21st and Woodlawn, and picking up her kids before the school and day care close.

“A lot of times, my friends at work, they will give me a ride over here,” she said, talking about the bus stop. “But if they can’t, I have to run – from 29th and Woodlawn all the way over here. Because if I walk, there’s no way I make it on time.”

Alvarado says she is taking driver’s education classes, and her goal is to get a car. That goal is driven in large part by a tense afternoon when a bus breakdown nearly caused her to be late for her kids.

“They didn’t send out another bus,” she said, her lower lip beginning to quiver.

“We just had to wait another hour. And then they’re (school officials) about to call SRS, and who knows the trouble you’re in,” she said, looking down at the ground.

Until Alvarado gets on her feet and gets that car, the bus is a mainstay of her life.

“It’s important because I wouldn’t be able to have my job and have my kids in an environment where I can leave them and come here,” she said. “I really hope they get this fixed.”

Private-sector options

Americans for Prosperity, a national anti-tax group with ties to the Koch brothers, is clear: Government has no business in Wichita public transportation.

And the AFP-Wichita chapter said it will fight any citywide sales tax increase vote for transit.

“Low-income Wichitans will have the most difficulty absorbing a higher sales tax rate,” said Susan Estes, field coordinator for the AFP-Wichita office. “Rather than asking families to sacrifice more while they struggle to pay for rent, gas, food, etc., we should encourage the private sector to step up to effectively meet a need.

“The current system is a jumbo-sized government solution when it’s likely a smaller, private system is a better alternative.”

Spade, the city’s transit director, said he is unaware of any public transportation service that turns a profit.

“And privately operated bus systems disappeared in the 1960s,” he said.

Virginia Miller, a spokeswoman for the American Public Transit Organization, said private bus systems were common in the first half of the 20th century, including some operated by public utilities. But as the car took hold, the transit systems began fading away, eliminated by their private owners as profits evaporated.

As a result, the federal government began funding public transit in the mid-1960s.

A day in the life of a bus rider

Cash leaves home, around Central and Topeka, at 5:30 a.m. each day to begin the hour-long trek to work.

“Without transit, I couldn’t get to work,” he said. “You either have to have a car or the transit center, and if I chose a car, I wouldn’t have a job or a home.”

Cash is open about how badly he needs his job: He said he’s been battling a massive hospital bill after two weeks in St. Francis with internal bleeding.

“One in intensive care,” he said with a grimace. “When you cook at a restaurant every day like I did, you don’t eat. I’d go three or four days without eating, and there was nothing in my stomach for the acid and it just ate me up.”

He hasn’t had a car since his 2013 divorce.

“Gave it to the wife,” he said, chuckling ruefully.

Cash catches a bus at 6 a.m. on Murdock in front of St. Francis that drops him off at 21st and Woodlawn at the bus stop, then he walks to work at HCR Manor Care, 7101 E. 21st St. – an ordeal in sub-freezing temperatures.

Then, he climbs back on the bus at 2:45 or 3:45 p.m. after getting off work, to begin the 90-minute trek home.

“I get off at 2:30 or 3, and the buses run every hour at that time, so I’ve got to make it to the bus stop by 2:45 or I have to wait an hour,” he said. “It’s a minor inconvenience.”

He rides that bus downtown to the transit center, where he catches the last bus that stops two blocks from his home, then walks over to QuikTrip for a cup of coffee and then home.

It sounds like a plan – but it isn’t. Cash’s work schedule fluctuates. Sometimes he works Saturdays – when bus service doesn’t always fit his schedule – and Sundays, when there’s no service.

“So I end up taking a cab,” he said. “Expensive. Very expensive. Almost as expensive as owning a car.”

Getting to work

Wichita’s unemployed pass on second- and third-shift jobs every day because they can’t get there, said Joy Amore, a staffing specialist at the Wichita Adecco job placement office.

“We have people in here every day who are eager to work, eager to be a part of society, but for whatever reason, they don’t have their own transportation,” she said. “These are people who rely on public transportation, and they’re looking for a foot in the door in a good-paying job.”

Since Wichita’s bus routes stop running between 6 and 7 p.m. daily, the good jobs available to Amore’s clients are limited to 8 to 5. No second or third shifts.

“These people are able to work Monday through Friday,” she said. “Transportation isn’t ever an issue for a day job, but if they need public transportation, it’s definitely an issue. These are people who desperately want to rejoin the workforce, but they’re struggling with putting food on the table.”

The dilemma these workers face boils down to car ownership. With even good used cars costing more than $10,000 – and with most clients coming off “a real bottoming-out” that began with the financial crisis in 2008 – those good jobs and financial stability come first before owning a car, Amore said.

Miller says she sees a fundamental disconnect between Wichitans and people like Alvarado, Cash and Chan: The vast majority have never set foot on a city bus.

“I see the other side of the argument, I guess,” she said. “If you’re going to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you have to have bootstraps first. People can’t even get the bootstraps, so to speak, without a job, and it’s pretty hard to get a job if you can’t afford transportation to get there because you’ve been down and out.

“It’s very, very hard for people in our community who have lived their lives with the physical and economic ability to drive to understand the need for public transportation.”

‘Foundation of my life’

The bus system is how Chan gets around Wichita and to his job as a packer at Coleman at 37th and Hydraulic, a long way from his Oaklawn home.

He leaves Oaklawn at noon, with a goal of getting to work just before 2 to leave enough time to eat lunch before his 3 p.m. shift begins.

“It takes quite awhile,” he said. “It takes an hour to get downtown, and then I catch a bus to 37th and Hydraulic. I catch the 11:56 bus, and usually I get to Coleman at eight minutes to 2.”

But getting home at 11:30 p.m. is an entirely different story with no bus service; the system begins shutting down five hours earlier.

“At night, my dad has to come pick me up,” he said. “And I can’t even afford any gas money.”

Sometimes Chan has to work a mandatory Saturday shift. He could work Sundays, too, to make more money – but he can’t with no bus service.

The bus is more than Chan’s ride to work.

“I use the bus for the grocery store, to get to the doctor, on top of getting to work,” he said. “It’s really the bus that’s the foundation of my life.”

Chan isn’t campaigning for an expanded bus system. With a tinge of desperation in his voice, he said he wants Wichitans to understand that any bus service is better than nothing at all.

“Oh, I don’t want to be hard on them or anything,” he said about transit administrators and the City Council. “If the buses could run a little more decent times for the people who don’t have a vehicle, to get the second- and third-shifters to work and back home, that would be very nice.

“But keeping the transit going as it is, I’m happy with it,” he said.

“But please don’t let it go away. People need this to keep going.”

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