The Wichita City Council could decide today that it has no choice but to cut bus service further to close a $500,000 budget gap. If so, that will be a disservice to Wichitans for whom public transit is a necessity to live self-sufficiently and independently, and to the city’s claim on being a full-service urban community.
The proposal would limit peak morning and late-afternoon weekday service to hourly buses, down from every half hour, as well as eliminate the underused Westside Connector and the morning and afternoon shuttle service to Goodwill Industries at 37th Street North and Oliver.
Maybe city leaders can live with fewer routes and once-an-hour buses. But what about the users for whom taking the bus is part of getting to work, school, child care, the store, the doctor – and just getting by?
Whatever happens in the short term, the council should consider the transit advisory board’s emerging idea of asking voters in November to use sales tax to fund bus service – or seek some other revenue stream.
As illustrated by an article in the Sunday Eagle comparing bus service in Wichita, Omaha and Des Moines, it’s wishful thinking that a transit system in such a city should pay for itself via the fare box and federal grants.
The transit board plans to further discuss a tax-for-buses proposal on Friday. A quarter-cent sales tax may be overdoing it, promising to generate more than $14 million a year.
But it would be an instructive question to put on the ballot, setting up a valuable community conversation about what kind of transit system Wichita expects.
City leaders also should be questioning whether there is another way to set up and govern a bus system for the Wichita metropolitan area in the 21st century. Des Moines’ DART system, for example, is an independent government agency meant to serve 19 cities and Polk County, and ridership is up 12 to 13 percent from a year ago (though the property-tax levy that helps fund it also is being increased to offset a shortfall). Omaha Metro finds that riders are drawn to commuter or express service, which Wichita lacks. Both cities’ systems contract with major businesses, so employees can ride by swiping an employee card; Omaha Metro seeks a similar arrangement with area colleges.
In addition, some in the community have noted that Wichita Transit is not included in the insurance risk pool with other city services. Is it reasonable to expect it to absorb its own losses, which can be significant?
And what’s the value of a better bus system in serving retiring boomers and sparing the air of harmful emissions?
Wichita’s bus system has been studied to death over the years. City leaders now need to act swiftly and decisively to keep the system from being sliced and diced to death.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman