Guest Commentary

The fix for Wichita’s transit problems won’t be politically popular

The downtown Transit Center, 214 S. Topeka.
The downtown Transit Center, 214 S. Topeka. File photo

Editor’s note: This is the final column in a four-part opinion series on Wichita’s transit system.

Though the full scope of the challenges facing Wichita Transit is underappreciated by many Wichitans, it is well understood by city officials and members of the Transit Advisory Board.

In short, a stable and reliable source of revenue for Wichita Transit is needed. The most dependable funding source would be the property tax. A 5-mill increase in the city mill levy would immediately provide over $17 million in stable funding. Such an idea would face public opposition and have to overcome the state property tax lid, which requires voters to approve mill levy increases above the inflation rate. If Wichitans think that transit is worth supporting, however, then such a vote is warranted.

In the absence of a mill levy increase, a new city sales tax of one quarter percent would also provide needed funding. Sales taxes are less reliable and more regressive than property taxes, and a sales tax increase was already rejected by Wichita voters just a few years ago. Still, a campaign targeted just toward supporting transit could prove more successful than its broader, more ambitious predecessor.

Relying on fare revenue alone will not solve this funding crisis. In 2017, bus fares accounted for 13.5% of Wichita Transit’s revenue — less than $2 million. While that is distressing in some ways, it may actually be a blessing. High fares for inadequate service are one factor dissuading Wichitans from riding the buses. For small agencies, it is counterproductive to maintain high fares that generate only small amounts of total revenue.

Fares on Wichita buses should be drastically reduced or eliminated altogether. Research has demonstrated that making transit free for users boosts ridership, and Wichita’s successful experiences with “Free Fares Week” support that conclusion. Why should free service be available only to the relatively affluent riders of the Q-Line, who take the trolley for downtown events and nightlife, while the most transit-dependent people in the city, who are generally also least able to afford bus fare, continue to pay for inadequate service? Making all buses free for riders will boost use, improve customer satisfaction, promote social equity and mitigate many of the regressive effects of a new tax.

The choice of a mode of transit comes down to an evaluation of costs and benefits, and for most Wichitans the ease of driving here makes the idea of riding a bus inconceivable. If we want to develop sustainable transit infrastructure, that balance of costs and benefits between modes will have to change. So while we reduce riders’ costs and improve service to make buses more attractive, we should also curb some of the incentives to private auto use. Higher fuel taxes, registration fees and parking fees, along with new state vehicle inspection requirements, could all contribute to this goal. These measures would also generate funds that could support transit agencies across Kansas, while simultaneously improving road safety and air quality.

None of these proposals will be politically popular. But Wichita cannot fulfill its broader goals of economic growth, prosperity and competitiveness without a robust transit system. Knowing the stakes, elected officials will have to take chances, make a strong case and trust that voters will support their bold advocacy for a critical public service. Elections for Mayor and City Council are fast approaching. No candidate should be allowed to make it through this election season without telling voters what their vision is for transit in Wichita and, more importantly, how they intend to get us there.

Part 1

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Part 2

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Part 3

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Chase M. Billingham is an associate professor of sociology at Wichita State University.