The Cottages of Columbia strikes deal for city bus service

Thursday, August 21, 2008 | 7:02 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA - Bus sightings are rare on East Nifong Boulevard. There is no regular city bus line, and most people don't know how to find the few buses that do run near the area.

Like many, MU sophomore Lindsay Williams has experienced frustration trying to get from the southeast sector of Columbia - where student housing has mushroomed in recent years - to the campus and downtown areas.

"In the past, I've had to worry about parking downtown, and shuttle buses have been unreliable," Williams said. Because she lives at The Cottages of Columbia, however, she'll now have another option.

Thanks to a newly approved contract between the city and The Cottages, residents of the new apartment complex at Nifong and Bearfield Road will no longer have to fumble with bus maps or get up an hour early for class.

The Cottages has given two buses to the city in exchange for an agreement from the city to provide regular bus service to and from the complex. The city will cover the cost of maintaining the buses and hiring drivers, along with other necessary up-keep. The five-year contract, which also allows the city to make at least one public stop along the route, is the first of its kind. It won the City Council's approval Monday night despite debate over a request by The Cottages to advertise on the buses.

"The city had the need, and we had a need. It was a joint venture," said John Vawter, executive vice president of Capstone Development Corp., which owns The Cottages. "We provide the capital; they the services."

The buses will begin running Monday, the first day of classes at MU. They'll pick up student residents of The Cottages every 30 minutes from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and bring them to campus. They'll also pick them up at Brady Commons and deliver them home.

The Cottages agreement represents a creative solution to a long-running problem. The city's transportation budget lacks sufficient money to meet growing demand on the outskirts of town. Other apartment complexes, such as those on Old 63, simply paid the city a subsidy in exchange for bus service, but the fleet had reached capacity.

"The gold route was completely full," said Jill Stedem, spokeswoman for the city's Public Works Department.

The gold route provides service to three apartment complexes on Old 63.

The Cottages service also will feature late-night route runs that will run every 30 minutes from 11:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. It will shuttle students from the downtown area in hopes of cutting down on potential cases of driving while intoxicated.

"It will keep those late-night drinkers off the streets," said Jen Wilson, vice president of administration and operations at the complex.

Wilson said the new bus service ups efficiency. Instead of dealing with the cost and bureaucratic red tape involved in extending the city's route, Capstone Development Corp. bought buses of its own. But for the $90,000 price tag, some are arguing the company is gaining a lot more.

The Cottages's owners had hoped to advertise on the buses, but that's where the City Council drew the line Monday night. First Ward Councilman Paul Sturtz worried that the apartment complex might be getting too much with five years of guaranteed bus service and free promotional space. He said a deal like that could set a bad precedent.

"There needs to be codified criteria - what kind of advertising, how many years, et cetera," Sturtz said. "I was worried there was no policy."

The buses serving the route will have signs indicating that they serve The Cottages, but the council voted 4-3 to reject the advertising proposal.



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