Politics & Government

Wichita officials propose temporary fix for struggling transit system

The city’s bus system faces a $2 million shortfall next year.
The city’s bus system faces a $2 million shortfall next year. File photo

After tabling a proposal for a sales tax of one-tenth of a cent, the city of Wichita is moving forward with a temporary fix for its struggling transit system.

The stopgap comes as the city considers the proposed $572.8 million budget for next year.

The city’s bus system, which faces a $2 million shortfall next year, would receive stopgap funding from three sources:

▪ Swapping $1.2 million in federal funds secured by Wichita Area Metropolitan Planning Organization funding by postponing two street projects.

▪ Lowering and locking in diesel fuel prices for the bus system at $500,000.

▪ Moving $300,000 from the city’s reserve fund.

Mayor Jeff Longwell said he’s not happy that the city will use stopgap funding, and stressed that discussions are still needed on long-term funding for the transit system.

City Manager Robert Layton said the first stopgap measure to postpone two street projects – one on 37th Street North and the other on Pawnee – would have to be approved by the planning organization, which has secured about $3 million in federal funds for the projects.

By delaying the projects to 2017, the city would take the freed-up money and use that to purchase new buses. Other funding originally earmarked for bus replacement would then move to operations, Layton said.

The 37th Street project, which would widen the road to three lanes between Woodlawn and Oliver and was scheduled to break ground in spring 2016, was through a partnership with the city of Bel Aire. Although the road is technically in Bel Aire, the city estimates that about 70 percent of the traffic comes from Wichita residents.

The two cities previously agreed to split the local costs of the road improvements, estimated at $650,000 each. The rest of the project would have been covered by about $3 million in federal transportation funds secured through the planning organization.

Improvements to both sides of the proposed 37th Street project have already been done. The improvements to the west on 37th Street were funded by Koch Industries for its campus expansion.

Koch declined to comment on the impact of postponing the roadwork.

“We’re going to do everything we can to try to keep the project on schedule,” Layton said. “It may mean that we have to use some CIP funds and get reimbursed in 2017, but there will probably be some delays because of this.”

Council members in recent weeks considered a sales tax for the system after a recommendation from the Transit Advisory Board. However, several council members said they weren’t sure there was an “appetite” for a new local sales tax at this time.

State legislators recently enacted an increase in sales tax statewide to plug budget shortfalls. And last fall, Wichita voters soundly defeated a 1-cent sales tax that would have gone toward water, transit, streets and a jobs fund.

Koch Cos. Public Sector spent more than $1 million to help defeat that local sales tax initiative, according to campaign finance documents filed with Sedgwick County in December .

Reach Kelsey Ryan at 316-269-6752 or kryan@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @kelsey_ryan.

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