It’s nearly 8:15 on a blustery Friday morning and the cell phones are out at the bus transfer station in Mission. Earlier buses have come and gone, but five people who were dropped off by their first bus a little later than usual are wondering if their second buses are going to pick them up. The signs on the shelters are no help. They’ve been wrong since the beginning of the month, when routes were rescheduled or cut back.
“It’s all messed up,” said Theone Scott, who rides out from Kansas City to his carpentry job in Merriam. If he doesn’t make his connection, he’ll have to walk the three remaining miles to his work.
The new year is off to a bumpy and uncertain start for Johnson County Transit’s bus system, otherwise known as The JO.
January marked the second consecutive year of cutbacks in routes. As the year began, the Johnson County Commission reduced service on The Jo by about 13 percent from last year. That is less of a cutback, though, than the Johnson County Transportation Council had originally proposed last spring.
A volunteer advocacy group concerned with fairness in the system filed a first-ever complaint with the Federal Transit Authority asking for a review of how the routes were cut. The federal authority requires a study of cutbacks to be sure they don’t disproportionately affect racial minority or low-income neighborhoods.
A fare increase is proposed for April 15 that would increase most JO routes from $2 to $2.25 and the popular Kansas 10 Connector to Lawrence from $3 to $3.50. A 10-ride pass on the connector would jump from $27 to $31.50 and from $18 to $20 for the other JO routes.
All this is happening against a backdrop of increased ridership, as county residents seek ways to save money and bus ridership loses some of its negative stigma.
The changes foot have caused some consternation among transit authorities. Last week, George Lafferty, chairman of the Johnson County Transportation Council, wrote an op-ed column in 913 saying The JO is “in peril,” as federal grants expire and leave a budget shortfall that the county commission is reluctant to fill with taxpayer dollars.
Steve Klika, longtime member of the transportation council and new member of the Johnson County Commission, said it’s time for the county to do some long-range thinking about the bus service. As a commissioner, he will have a deciding vote on the future of the county’s transit system.
“At some point we will have to decide what transit is going to look like in the county and evolve to it,” he said. But that won’t be easy, as county officials also try to hold on to other basic services in difficult budgetary times, he said.
The council kicked off the year with a staff report on ridership and the budget for this year and next. They estimated that even with increased ridership and cutbacks, the anticipated budget deficit for the 2014 fiscal year will be $1.5 million.
While that’s a large amount, it’s not as big a deficit as the $2.8 million originally projected. Transit officials were able to revise the deficit projections because of higher-than-expected federal and state grants and savings that resulted from reduced service hours and the use of taxis for Special Edition services for senior and disabled citizens.
The county eliminated several routes and folded others together for the new schedule that took effect this month. Transit Action Network filed a complaint asking the Federal Transit Authority to look into the neighborhoods affected and the way comments from the public were solicited.
Janet Rogers, co-founder of the advocacy group Transit Action Network, said the transportation council arrived at the cuts and sent them to the Johnson County Commission for approval with little time or a required study on what neighborhoods may be affected.
Federal Title VI requires studies to ensure that neighborhoods with large populations of racial minorities and low-income groups are not hit harder than anyone else in cutbacks. It also prohibits a gradual chipping away of services as a way to reduce ridership and justify their elimination, said Rogers.
The Transit Action Network, which was joined by The Whole Person, Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity and Westwood Christian Church, also questioned the transportation council’s priorities for funding, as well as the public hearing process.
The two public meetings about the cutbacks last summer were held at times that were difficult for many people to attend, she said. One was during traditional working hours and the other meeting was over after The JO stopped running for the night. Both were at the Sylvester Powell Community Center in Mission.
But the public hearings weren’t the main issue. Really, Rogers said, her group just wanted to get the county to do the demographic study that is required by the Federal Transit Authority.
Because the study wasn’t done, there’s no way to say for sure if the cutbacks take a harder aim at certain neighborhoods. “We are concerned that the logical and foreseeable consequences of JCT’s service changes appear to be discriminatory,” the complaint says.
“We feel the routes and schedules provided for minority and low-income populations are vastly inferior to the non-minority and middle- to high-income populations,” it continues. In particular, Rogers said, were “reverse commute” routes 669/I from Kansas City, Kan., to Olathe, and 677/R, from downtown Kansas City to Olathe, which are being eliminated. Parts of those routes have been incorporated into another, making the trip longer and less attractive, Rogers said. Those routes serve predominately Hispanic and African-American riders. A 33 percent cut in another route, 812/J in Overland Park, would hit elderly and low-income riders disproportionately, Rogers said.
Another sore point is that the county seems to have made its new Connex service a higher priority than existing routes serving financially stressed riders, she said. Connex is an express service akin to the MAX in Kansas City, and it is funded by a $10.7 million federal Transit Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant. Expansion of this service along the Metcalf/Shawnee Mission Parkway corridor involves new buses and the construction of park-and-ride facilities and transfer stations.
Regular bus service shouldn’t be cut back while Connex goes forward, Rogers said.
Transit officials declined to comment on the complaint. Chuck Ferguson, the county’s deputy transportation director, said The JO officials are committed to a high level of communication with riders and that the county went by the book in seeking the cutbacks.
And then there’s the proposed fare increase. Fares will go up 16.7 percent on the Kansas 10 connector and 12.5 percent to other routes. Officials are only at the beginning of the fare increase process, which will include public comments and several layers of governmental approval before it can go into effect April 15. Public hearings are scheduled for 7-8 a.m. Feb. 12 and 5:30-6:30 p.m. Feb. 14 at the Sylvester Powell Community Center in Mission.
While the fare increases may be painful for riders, they won’t make a huge difference to The JO’s bottom line. Fare revenue is hard to calculate, but officials said the increase would probably amount to less than six figures of additional revenue.
The goal is to have 20 percent of The JO’s operating costs come from the fare box, Klika said. Currently, about 15 to 17 percent does, he said.
Despite all the news of cutbacks the past couple of years, more people have been interested in riding the bus, Ferguson said. More people are calling The JO offices now than they were a decade ago, seeking fare and route information, he said.
Ridership figures bear that out. Last year, ridership increased 8.3 percent from 2011, and it increased 21 percent from 2010 to 2011, and this is in line with the national trend, according to the JO staff report.
Officials and transportation advocates worry that the fare/cutback combination could hurt ridership so much that eventually the whole service is in danger of being eliminated. That was the point Lafferty made in his op-ed, while saying good public transportation is needed to attract young professionals to Johnson County. The JO staff estimates that ridership will decline 4.2 percent this year because of the cuts.
Meanwhile, riders themselves just want to be able to get to and from work on time.
Morgan Beard takes the bus every day from Mission to her job at the Dollar Tree in Shawnee. Like others Friday, she was frustrated at the lack of information about the new schedule, and the fact that all of the buses don’t show up at the transfer station at the same time. But she needs the bus because she’s still saving for a car.
Fare increases are never good news. “It’s not going to kill me, but it’s not going to be the best thing,” she said. But would a fare increase stop her from riding?
“No, because I don’t really have a choice.”