Wichita to hire adviser to get public's ideas on bus transit

Amanda Cotton's commute from her home in west Wichita to her job at a plasma clinic on East Central Avenue would take roughly 15 minutes in a car.

But she doesn't have one.

So the 36-year-old rides the West Maple bus to downtown Wichita and transfers to the East Central line to head north. In the morning, it takes a half-hour. After she clocks out in late afternoon, it's an hour ride home.

If she misses her bus, she has to wait an hour to catch the next one.

"I think it needs improvement," she said between sending text messages while riding the route last week.

She might get that.

Wichita is about to hire a consultant to corral opinions about what people want from the bus system and whether they'd pay — perhaps through a voter-approved sales tax — to improve and expand it.

Cotton, for one, said she would.

Wichita's bus system carried about 2.2 million passengers last year, more than any time in the past five years, except for 2008, when gas prices exceeded $4 per gallon.

But its minimalist routes channel most riders through downtown, and its infrequent scheduling and lack of evening service or Sunday routes make it an inconvenient system used mostly by people who have no other option.

Surveys and interviews show more people would take the bus to save money and reduce pollution if it were more convenient.

University of Kansas urban planning graduate students prepared a regional plan for Wichita Transit last year that recommends north-south, east-west grid routes spaced about every half-mile.

Buses would run about every 15 minutes Monday through Saturday from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. Regional neighbors such as Park City, Andover and Derby could provide their own connectors to link into the grid or a countywide sales tax could help fund that.

The plan, which includes several other recommendations, would cost an estimated $56 million per year — up from $12 million. Another $157 million would be needed for capital expenses, but federal dollars could cover as much as half of that.

Opinions expressed during the outreach sessions would ultimately determine what kind of system Wichita aims for.

The 1-cent sales tax approved to fund Intrust Bank Arena generated $70.6 million inside city limits in 2008, the KU study shows. A quarter-cent sales tax could have brought in more than $17.6 million.

Wichita could opt to pair a quarter-cent sales tax with things such as taxes on car rental or hotel rooms.

City officials also could consider packaging a sales tax referendum for transit with a portion going toward parks, public safety or property tax reduction, said Michael Vinson, director of Wichita Transit.

More riders and more advertising on an increased bus fleet also would help boost transit's funding.

In a soon-to-be-released National Citizen Survey of Wichitans, 84 percent of people responding said they hadn't ridden a city bus within the last year. The survey is offered to cities by the International City/County Management Association.

Meanwhile, roughly as many people (87 percent) support spending more to enhance public transit as those who support more fire stations, parks and bike paths.

"The only way we can really improve transit is if we had a dedicated source of funds outside of property taxes," Vinson said.

Mayor Carl Brewer said it's clear people want more transit options, but he'll wait to see results of the study to decide whether to support a referendum.

"If gas prices go down, that's going to change the dynamics," he said.

Council member Jeff Longwell said he's interested in what the study may say, but he cautioned against a referendum, noting that ideas for other referendums have also been floated.

"We're a long ways from having a discussion about a referendum," he said.

Subsidy common

Few, if any, bus systems nationwide survive on fares alone. Wichita is near average, deriving about 20 percent of its operating costs from fare boxes. The rest comes from local property taxes, state funding and federal grants.

In good years, that's enough to maintain the city's barebones system.

But this year federal stimulus dollars stopped rolling in and the cost of diesel fuel for the city's 4 mile per gallon buses climbed significantly.

The system faces a roughly $1 million shortfall that will force Wichita City Council members to raise fares from the current $1.25, cut services or some combination later this summer, Vinson said.

In many cities, voters have approved a small sales tax increase to expand and sustain their transit systems.

Sales tax is the most widely used source of dedicated local and regional funding for transit, according to a 2009 report by Transit Cooperative Research Program, sponsored by the Federal Transit Administration.

Referendums have a high rate of success.

Last year, 77 percent of public transportation funding ballot initiatives passed, according to the Center for Transportation Excellence, a Washington D.C.-based research group.

Wichita already has some incentive to expand public transportation.

If the EPA adopts stricter air quality standards, as expected, Wichita will likely exceed them, forcing the city to adopt in-depth and costly plans to trim emissions.

In other cities, that has often meant convincing people to use public transit systems more to cut down on vehicle exhaust and traffic congestion.

The biggest incentive for voters is perhaps the escalating price of gas, which neared $4 a gallon in Wichita last week.

Rides to jobs

A Brookings Institution study released last week ranks Wichita 37th among the 100 largest cities in terms of providing transit service to places of employment.

The study essentially analyzed residents who live within 3/4 of a mile of a bus stop and how many places of employment they could reach within 90 minutes.

The ranking surprised Vinson, the transit director.

He said Wichita's system provides great connections to low-income service sector jobs, ranging from fast food to retail. But it doesn't serve some of Wichita's largest employers, such as Cessna, very well.

Wichita has one of the shortest average commute times of any large city, and that helped its bus system out-perform other cities, such as Minneapolis, Austin, Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Kansas City, in the study.

But a closer look reveals Wichita ranks 62nd when calculating the number of jobs people can reach on buses within 45 minutes, which is still a long commute in the city.

Wichita fell short of the national average on the share of working-age people near a transit stop. It has a longer wait time for buses during rush hour, but it drops more people off within walking distance of employers than many other bus systems, the study found.

Racia Huckleby, who often drives the West Maple route, said many riders tell her they want longer service hours, Sunday routes and more convenience.

The West Maple route is often standing room only, and she said about 80 percent of her riders are regulars who are mostly commuting to work.

Jeff Mitchell, a 42-year-old riding the West Maple line to his job at a landscaping company last week, said that the buses are a lifeline for many people, like him, at the Work Release Facility near Intrust Bank Arena.

The existing system works, he said, but it takes a lot of studying to know which routes to take where and how long the trip will take.

He said existing fares are pretty good, but the schedules prevent people from getting to second-shift jobs.

"There's a lot of people who would use it if it ran later," he said.

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