Irene Bailey isn’t just part of Johnson County’s 1 percent.
Her club is even more exclusive. She’s part of the county’s half percent.
Bailey lives just south of downtown Overland Park in a high-rise apartment building that is a home for people with disabilities, the poor and the elderly.
She and some of her neighbors at Santa Fe Towers don’t have the luxury of a car and rely on Johnson County’s 812 bus, which runs three times a week, ferrying riders to Hy-Vee, Price Chopper and the Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market. The route was one of nine that Johnson County transit planners wanted to eliminate earlier this summer but have since agreed to save with reduced service.
“A lot of us depend on that bus. We really need it,” said Bailey, who at 78 hasn’t had a car for two years.
Bailey is part of a tiny fraction of people who ride the bus in Johnson County — actually less than half of one percent, according to census data.
And there’s the rub.
Johnson County runs a $15.9 million commuter bus service that not many of us use — and that county officials say they can no longer afford in its current form. Several of its routes have only handfuls of riders. But for some of those who do ride the bus, the service is a lifeline: the elderly trying to get to a grocery store, the poor who need to get to a job, domestic violence victims who have fled abuse.
Faced with losing critical state and federal funds, county officials are wrestling with how to best provide a service that’s expanded in recent years but isn’t what residents say they want most from county government.
The Jo, as the buses are known, is looking at trimming routes that will affect those who rely on buses for transportation as well as business commuters who are looking to save money when gas is at $3.70 a gallon.
Earlier this year, the county proposed eliminating nine of its 20 routes and cutting back a handful of others. But after hearing from riders and transit advocates, the county is now proposing to do away with only five routes.
Those cuts don’t come close to closing the budget gap. This year, transit planners will cover a $1.2 million deficit with reserves. But the proposed cuts for 2013 — less than $400,000 — don’t come close to the $2.8 million shortfall projected for 2014.
Transit planners will decide on their final recommendations to the Johnson County Commission on Sept. 18. The County Commission isn’t expected to act until Oct. 18, with the changes becoming effective Jan. 2.
The budget problems are causing county officials, elected leaders, in particular, to do some soul searching about what they want bus service to be in Johnson County.
“We have made significant investment in this system. We’re seeing a significant increase in ridership,” said Commissioner Ed Peterson.
“Our community has told us if it’s there, it’s going to be used,” he said. “If we step back from that in a significant way, that tells the community even if you’re going use it, we’re not willing to fund it.”
The Johnson County bus system is small compared to the one in Kansas City because it generally serves rush-hour commuters in a suburban area where 85 percent of the population drives alone to work each day.
Its busiest routes connect riders to Lawrence via Kansas 10 and downtown on Interstate 35.
Last year as gas prices started to take off again, Johnson County transit reported 519,000 boardings, up about 12 percent from the year before. By comparison, Kansas City, which serves a more transit-dependent population, had 15.6 million boardings last year.
An overwhelming majority ride Johnson County buses to get to work.
About a third of the people who ride Johnson County buses are between 50 and 59 years old, and a little more than half earn more than $50,000 a year, a 2012 survey showed. Ninety-three percent of riders have at least one car.
Only about 7 percent of bus riders said they did not have access to a car, leaving them the population most vulnerable to cuts in bus service.
Take for example, the eliminated route that serves the Villa St. Francis nursing home on 126th Street in Olathe. A group of the center’s workers depends on the bus for getting to their job from their homes in Kansas City, Kan.
The nursing home will be served with another route that will likely make the hour-long commute even longer — and the bus service will run about half as many trips as it does now.
“That’s the only transportation I have,” said Emma Blakney, a certified nursing assistant at Villa St. Francis. “If I didn’t have a bus, I wouldn’t have a job.”
News that service to the Olathe nursing home would not be eliminated was a welcome relief even if it means longer commutes to work.
“I wouldn’t care how long it takes to get home as long as I get home,” Blakney said.
Some cuts could eliminated routes altogether.
The county plans to eliminate bus routes that serve De Soto and Spring Hill, which serve about 20 riders a day combined. Only about 3 percent of the cost of running both routes is covered with fares. Both routes cost the taxpayers nearly $80,000 a year combined.
Nevertheless, there is concern that eliminating that service might leave the elderly without service because that part of the county is only gets limited service from the so-called Special Edition, which provides transportation for senior riders.
“When you take away those services, what do they have? In rural areas, there just aren’t a lot of options,” asked Jim Courtney, executive director of the Mr. Goodcents Foundation, which works to improve lifestyles for seniors.
Likewise, bus service is crucial for many victims of abuse, who sometimes have no way to get around if they decide to leave a violent domestic relationship, said officials at Safehome, a domestic violence shelter in Johnson County.
“Access to transportation is absolutely essential if victims of domestic violence are to escape abuse and become economically self-sustaining,” said Janeé M. Hanzlick, the agency’s associate executive director. “Transportation can literally mean the difference between life and death for victims of domestic violence.”
Safehome estimates that about a third of its residents don’t have any transportation and the other two-thirds don’t have a reliable means to get around.
Last year, Safehome laid out $16,000 in transportation assistance to its clients, including money for gas, cabs and car repairs.
Safehome has clients who use the bus system, but it’s not always convenient for getting to work, to the doctor, to school or to a court-mandated hearing, Hanzlick said.
“The routes don’t go where they need to go or the time to get somewhere is prohibitive,” Hanzlick said. “More people would use the bus if there were more convenient (bus) lines.”
Hanzlick said the county should be going looking for ways to expand service not cut a system that she described as “minimal.”
The county has increased service as recently has two years ago when it embarked on a major expansion that for the first time included an east-west route along 75th Street connecting Johnson County to the Waldo neighborhood in Kansas City and ultimately downtown.
The county also added new service along Metcalf Avenue and Shawnee Mission Parkway that’s aimed at fueling redevelopment efforts in Mission and northern Overland Park.
A $1.3 million federal grant paid for beefing up the Metcalf service and the 75th Street route into Waldo, and that money is about gone.
The county wants to keep those routes in place, especially the new service along Metcalf Avenue and Shawnee Mission Parkway, where the federal government has invested $10 million in new transit centers to foster development of a new bus rapid transit line similar to a type of express route operated in Kansas City.
But the county is now trimming all three routes, including the 75th Street service, which would run every hour at rush hour instead of every half hour.
The cuts worry city officials in Mission, which is spending $2 million of the $10 million federal grant to build a new transit center for bus service that Johnson County is now cutting back.
As originally proposed, the county transit cutbacks would have reduced trips in and out of the center by 40 percent, said Martin Rivarola, Mission’s community development director.
Now, it appears Mission will not lose much, if any, bus service — for now. But Rivarola is still worried about the future.
“Unfortunately, absent some changes in philosophy over the importance and benefits of transit, this may just be postponing route eliminations a year or two,” Rivarola said.
- * *
While Johnson County has provided steady support for bus service over the years — it will be about $600,000 more in 2013 than it was in 2007 — it has relied heavily on money from the state and federal governments to run its commuter-focused bus service.
However, that money is starting to vanish, leaving the county in a pinch unless it takes money from other agencies or raises taxes.
“The issue is the system has been built — as many public systems are — on the use of federal dollars and state dollars,” Commission Chairman Ed Eilert said.
“If your system is built on significant reliance upon those kinds of dollars, they aren’t going to be there” in the future.
County commissioners point out that county funding over the years, if nothing else, has been consistent. They say they are working to focus their money on bus services where there’s the most demand.
Their top priorities are preserving services for the elderly and people with disabilities, the express bus routes on Metcalf Avenue, K-10 service connecting to Lawrence and the commuter routes linking to downtown.
“What is the ultimate customer need and how can we best provide it?” asked Commissioner Michael Ashcraft.
“We ought to be looking at other transportation options. What is the ultimate customer need and how can we best provide it? I don’t think the current system does that very well.”
Some county commissioners note that they are trying to keep existing bus funding intact even though they are cutting other taxpayer services.
They say it’s hard to justify running largely empty buses on some routes at a time when other agencies are getting cut.
They say putting more money into transit to make up for a shortfall in federal and state funding opens the door for requests to put more money into other services that are in demand.
“There are other priorities that the citizens have come to request and expect,” said County Commissioner Jason Osterhaus. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t raise taxes high enough to fulfill everybody’s needs.”
Osterhaus said there is a public perception about transit in Johnson County that makes it hard for officials to defend.
“The average person that comes and talks to me about transit, they’ll say, ‘Why are we running empty buses,’ ” Osterhaus said. “For the average person who has seen the buses run down the road, they look at it and see one or two people. In their mind, they’re like, ‘Why are we running this bus for one or two people?’ ”
Osterhaus and some other commissioners point to numbers showing that it costs taxpayers up to more than $11,000 a year per rider for some routes assuming that all of the riders take the bus every day in both directions.
Steve Klika, a Johnson County transit advocate and a former member of the advisory board that advises the county on transportation issues, acknowledges that the county has routes that don’t serve many people, leaving the impression that the county is operating ghost buses.
But every transit cut means something to someone, he said.
“The sad part about it is every time you do the cuts you are affecting somebody whether it’s one person or 10 people,” said Klika, who is running for the County Commission this year.
But if buses are running with many empty seats, it’s because the county hasn’t done more to make the service visible to the public, transit advocates said.
Ron McLinden of the Kansas City-based Transit Action Network contends the county hasn’t done enough to mark bus stops and park-and-ride lots in order to foster increased ridership. He said the county recently received a $374,000 grant to better mark bus stops, but hasn’t yet spent the money.
The Johnson County service “in most cases is invisible except when the bus is passing by on the street,” McLinden said. “It’s a chick-and-egg situation. If you operate a service that is largely invisible you can’t expect to attract any riders.”
As an example, McLinden argued that one of the new Metcalf routes started two years ago has struggled with ridership because the county did not do more to promote the new service.
Alice Amrein, Johnson County’s transportation director, said the department’s first priority has been getting service on the street.
With limited resources, the county developed a system where riders could flag down the bus by a hand signal along the route — not necessarily at a designated stop.
Amrein said she hardly thinks the system is “invisible” because it employs different colored buses that serve as “rolling billboards.”
- * *
As difficult as the cuts are now, transit officials recently warned the commission that more cuts to the bus system are probably on the way, although they are trying to find ways increase fares to help raise funds.
“In 2014, things might actually be worse than 2013 unless something miraculous happens. And I don’t think I am exaggerating by using the word miraculous,” said George Lafferty, who heads the Johnson County Transportation Council.
“We don’t look at this as a means to an end. We still have some difficult issues we’re going to be facing,” he said.
Bus advocates at the Transit Action Network say they think the county should consider some kind of property tax increase to help fund bus service, which is marketed as The Jo.
“We would love to see Johnson County increase and expand The Jo,” said Janet Rogers of the Transit Action Network.
“As they would grow it, ridership would grow because it would provide much better service,” she said.
Rogers said ridership on the system is held down because Johnson County doesn’t run that many routes, which doesn’t make it convenient for riders.
“It takes more money to put the routes in to have the extra frequency and service levels in order to build ridership.”
Last year, a special commission that studied transit services in Johnson County recommended that the county should slowly raise property taxes or impose a countywide vehicle registration fee to pay for more bus service.
The committee developed a five-step plan for gradually improving bus service. Fully implemented, the plan would cost the county $28 million in yearly operating expenses -— almost twice what the county spends now — plus $30 million in capital costs.
However, the plan never got much traction with Eilert immediately shooting down the idea of raising taxes for buses.
Commissioner Peterson said a small property tax increase — as much as a half mill — would help cover the shortfall and probably be hardly noticed by residents.
“Transit represents a lot more than moving some people around,” he said.
He said it helps fuel development, especially for the older areas of the county that are fighting to stay fresh and vibrant.
Klika said the economic reality is that there is less money to improve the bus system but that current leadership of the county is more concentrated on scrubbing the budget than spending money.
“In the last couple of years, we’ve had a change in leadership and direction that is totally focused on the budget and the financing of the county with the ultimate goal that there would be no increase in the property tax,” Klika said.
“When you have a county that’s so focused on trying to tighten things up… everything gets put on the line,” he said.
But Ashcraft said promising more subsidies without changing the mindset for how public transportation provided is no longer good enough in tight financial times.
He points out that in some cases the county could pay someone $5 a trip not to ride the bus and still save money for taxpayers.
“It would be cheaper to have limousines drive these routes for the number of people” on them, Ashcraft said. “Does that fundamentally make sense?”
Ashcraft said the county needs to find ways to move beyond using what he describes as big box buses for public transportation.
“Government is a wonderful thing, but they way we did it in the 19th century is not how we should do it in the 21st century,” he said. “I’m sorry. I believe in the new norm. And the new norm, says we do not have endless resources.”
To reach Brad Cooper call 816-234-7724 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org