Bad news on city buses

Citizens got the frustrating news last week that the Wichita Transit system risks an $800,000 budget deficit for 2012, in part because ridership declined when fares went up last fall. So much for the hope, albeit naive, that the 50-cent fare hike would right the system’s finances and stave off further talk of axing Saturday service. Now what?

At the council workshop last week, consultant Mark Swope forecast the need for $2 million a year in city subsidies just to keep the current system going. And he cautioned that a path of static funding and cost-cutting – say, by ending Saturday service in 2013, dropping routes in 2015 and 2016, slicing an hour from daily service in 2017 – slowly would erode the system.

Swope’s presentation also got into pie-in-the-sky territory: imagining costly new north-south routes or commuter service into the suburbs, bus service to key employers, Sunday and evening service, and new buses that run on alternative energy sources and come with Wi-Fi and GPS.

Consultants and focus groups always seem to envision a bus system for Wichita that would be there when and where people need it. The dreams of a fully revived downtown also seem to include lots of buses and no waiting. But talking about a robust and regional service doesn’t make it so, especially if there’s insufficient money to pay for the $10 million status quo.

Is what Swope called a downtown-focused “coverage-based system” with “marginally adequate” frequency – 30 to 60 minutes between buses – satisfying anybody?

Do city leaders want a bare-bones service primarily used by the poor and disabled? Do they see an obligation to get ready to serve the baby boomers as they retire and surrender their car keys? Could a better bus system curtail Wichita’s air-pollution problem?

It’s hard to imagine taxpayers in this car-addicted town agreeing to raise the local sales tax to bankroll a bigger bus system – especially when, as it is, they see many buses roll past them in traffic with few passengers aboard.

City Manager Robert Layton seemed in step with the public mood in discounting the possibility of financial bailouts from property-tax revenue. Further fare increases don’t seem to be an option, either.

“Take it out to the community and let’s see what they have to say,” Mayor Carl Brewer advised Layton – “recognizing that we need to do something differently, but … we need to hear from the community, secondly, what they’re going to do differently.”

More input clearly is needed, including from suburban leaders. But city leaders soon will have to cut off debate (and consultants) and realize they are the ones driving this bus.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman