Editor’s note: This is the third column in a four-part opinion series on Wichita’s transit system.
Wichita is far behind peer cities in the provision and use of public transit. Cultural arguments that lay transit’s failure at the feet of Wichita’s driving culture are inadequate because they cannot explain why Wichita lags behind nearby cities of similar or smaller size, most of which share a similar built environment and demographic characteristics. The true source of divergence is funding. Wichita Transit is severely underfunded, even compared to its peers in nearby car-friendly cities such as Omaha, Oklahoma City and Tulsa.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Wichita Transit received approximately $4.2 million in local funds in 2017. By comparison, local agencies that year received $7.4 million in Tulsa, $14.1 million in Oklahoma City, $14.5 million in Omaha, $15.4 million in Des Moines and $70.4 million in Kansas City. Local funding covered roughly one third of Wichita Transit’s expenses in 2017, by far the lowest proportion in the region. Meanwhile, Wichita was more reliant on federal grants to fund transit than any nearby city.
These financial problems are not new, and they are not unknown to the city government. City leaders and transit officials have been searching for more robust and more reliable funding for years, and they have frequently floated the idea of levying a dedicated local sales tax to support the service. Transit was one of four priorities that the city identified when it held a referendum on imposing a new 1-cent sales tax in 2014. Amid well-funded opposition and much controversy, that referendum was decisively rejected by voters.
Since then, the system’s finances have remained in limbo. In 2016, the City Council approved a Transit Sustainability Plan, which correctly identified the problems plaguing the system and bluntly stated that “a predictable source of local funds needs to be identified.” Since that time, though, no significant action has been taken to secure that predictable source.
Following the sale of the city-owned Hyatt hotel, Wichita dedicated $1 million of the proceeds to the stabilization of transit finances each year between 2016 and 2019. The Hyatt funding provided a stopgap that allowed the agency to pursue reforms designed to become more self-sustainable, but that source of money will soon be gone. The city’s current Transit Sustainability Plan has many parts, but it is essentially predicated upon the expectation of significant increases in ridership, and there is little evidence to suggest that such growth in ridership and revenue from fares is forthcoming. In the most recent city budget, there is no projected increase in transit funding through at least 2021. The city is counting on increased fare revenue to improve the agency’s finances, but as long as the operational limits of the current system remain in place, such expectations are unrealistic.
The reality facing Wichita Transit’s finances has been known for years. A predictable, reliable — and, it must be emphasized, large — source of money is needed immediately. It is unlikely to come from fare revenue at a time when ridership is stagnant or declining. Moreover, the federal grants that have been instrumental in supporting Wichita Transit in the past are not reliable over the long run. It must instead come from tax dollars. This means that securing it will require persuasion and immense political will from elected officials in Wichita.