As Missouri-side officials seek to expand transit with plans for commuter rail and downtown streetcars, Johnson County is headed in the opposite direction.
After years of expansion, The Jo bus system faces such severe cutbacks that some say it’s in danger of being dismantled.
“It would be a tragic step backward,” said Ed Peterson, county commissioner.
Deep cuts that seemed imminent a few weeks ago have been put off for now. But because of cash constraints and cautious support for public transit from a majority of the seven commissioners, Johnson County transit officials began last month drawing up plans for dramatic service reductions.
Only five of the nearly two dozen routes would have been assured of survival under one scenario. Another five, including the popular 710 route to Lawrence, would be retained “if possible.” Ten other express and local feeder routes were slated for probable or certain elimination, leaving the spine of the system intact but lopping off the appendages.
Only The Jo’s two paratransit services for elderly and disabled people — Special Edition and SWIFT — would have gone unscathed.
“As of two weeks ago, that was the apparent situation,” Peterson said.
Thanks to foot-dragging in Topeka and a one-time funding shift, the most drastic cutbacks have been averted for now. But some service reductions remain likely this year, and beyond 2013 the future of mass transit in the area’s second-most-populous county remains precarious, officials say.
“It’s somewhat of a crisis,” said Chip Corcoran, vice chairman of the county transportation council, an advisory committee appointed by the county commission. “The county needs to decide if public transit is a priority and to what level.”
That’s been a matter of debate since 1982, when Johnson County quit contracting for service with the metrowide Area Transportation Authority and set up its own bus system.
Were the decision based on ridership trends alone, there’d be no contest on which direction to head. Passenger counts on the regular bus system are nearly twice what they were a decade ago. Ridership has seen double-digit-percentage increases in recent years: 12 percent in fiscal 2011, and if last month’s headcount of 48,700 riders is any indication — it was the best April on record for the fixed-route part of the system — 2012 could be a stellar year.
“We’re probably going to have our highest ridership ever,” said deputy transportation director Chuck Ferguson.
But costs remain high, with fare-box revenue covering 16.7 percent on average for all services, and with the federal, state and county funds making up the difference. That’s not unusual, though. Fares cover just 17 percent of Kansas City’s bus service as well.
The steepest subsidies in Johnson County are for the door-to-door service provided for elderly and disabled people. The cost to county taxpayers for regular bus service is not cheap, either, averaging $575 to $3,200 annually for each rider, depending on ridership and grant support for each route.
Much of the system’s expansion in recent years has been paid for with those federal and state grants, which are being scaled back. As Johnson County transit officials began preparing for the coming 2013 fiscal year, they faced a $1.5 million reduction: $500,000 less from Topeka, $800,000 less from the feds and a roughly $200,000 reduction in county tax support.
Given an operating budget of just over $12 million, the cut was substantial, and so Jo officials asked for direction from the board of commissioners on how to proceed.
Staffers and transportation council members say they were “flabbergasted” by the marching orders from the commission majority, led by Chairman Ed Eilert: Don’t cut door-to-door transit services for the most vulnerable residents, and only save fixed routes that are the most heavily grant-subsidized, especially those running along Metcalf Avenue. As for the rest, eliminate them if need be.
“My sense of the commission’s priorities,” Eilert said, “is transit services for those who don’t have any other options.”
Specifically the SWIFT and Special Edition paratransit services. But heavily subsidizing bus service for people who have access to cars is a luxury Johnson County can ill afford, Eilert said, at a time when budget cuts are forcing reduction in library hours and other service reductions.
“I think it’s important,” he said of public transit, “but it’s like anything else. You can have what you want to pay for.”
The crisis eased some after that April 5 meeting and one that came a week later, when the commission signed off on the staff’s plan for deep cuts.
First came news from Topeka that the expected $500,000 state cut would be delayed a year. After that, the board majority softened its stance and allowed the transportation department to use reserve funds to make up for the federal cutbacks.
“It took away the largest driver of concern,” said Peterson, who along with Commissioner Jim Allen has been the most supportive of public transit among their colleagues.
“But it’s kind of a one-time deal. As things stand right now, we could probably squeeze by for one more year and then face substantial cuts in service in (fiscal) 2014.”
At the urging of the commissioners, transit officials aren’t waiting until then to act. They see the rest of this year and next as their best chance to preserve basic services by rethinking how public transit operates in Johnson County.
Among the changes being considered:
Some underperforming routes would make fewer runs each day, or be eliminated.
To save on fuel costs, The Jo is working out an agreement to park downtown-bound buses at the ATA lot during the midday layover rather than driving them back to the bus barn between the morning and evening commutes. ATA mechanics could also do minor maintenance on the buses.
Perhaps the biggest potential savings could come from splitting the current service contract the county has with the private company that operates The Jo’s fleet. That agreement with First Transit runs out at the end of the year. One way to save money would be to use cabs, rather than the small buses called “cutaways” now used for Special Edition and SWIFT trips, when there’s no need to accommodate a wheelchair.
Had the contract been split up four years ago, the ATA might now be running parts of the system.
“We were close,” ATA chief Mark Huffer said. “We’re really good at fixed-route transit.”
Like Eilert, Commissioner Michael Ashcraft said Johnson County needs to rethink how it provides public transit, whether it’s contracting with the ATA to run parts of the system or pressuring the University of Kansas and the city of Lawrence to help pay for the 710 commuter line that neither supports now.
“The core direction we gave to staff is we have to be open to think very differently about how we provide public transit,” Ashcraft said.
Indeed, some see The Jo’s funding crisis as an opportunity to push the notion of a single, regional transit system once again after three decades of a system that has significant gaps, such as a lack of any public transit in Johnson County nights and weekends.
“The only way transit is going to succeed in Kansas City is if it’s regionalized,” said Steve Klika, a member of the Johnson County Transportation Council who also serves as the county’s representative on the ATA board.
Accomplishing that goal won’t be easy. Like Johnson County, Independence and Kansas City, Kan., also have their own bus services and their own agendas. Likewise, a regional transit tax, while talked about for years, has yet to reach a ballot.
Still, the broader discussion needs to take place, said ATA board Chairman Robbie Mackinen.
“I consider this a real opportunity for the KCATA to rekindle the seamless, regional transit discussion,” he said.
That and any number of other points of discussion, as far as Ashcraft is concerned.
“Everything needs to be on the table,” he said.
To reach Mike Hendricks, call 816-234-4738 or send email to email@example.com.