COLUMBIA — Although riders asked for it, it looks as though there won't be any money for extended bus service when the new city budget goes to the Columbia City Council.
A survey conducted by PedNet, Columbia Transit and the Columbia Health Department found that bus riders want service hours extended to 10:25 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, primarily for transportation to and from work and to run basic errands.
The subsequent proposal, which would increase bus service hours on a trial basis, will not be a part of City Manager Mike Matthes' budget recommendations, which will be presented to the council later this month.
Matthes said he can't come up with the $22,407 for the six-month pilot program to extend hours Monday through Wednesday for two of the city's 15 bus routes.
"We are in a budget cycle that is unforgiving," Matthes said. "There is no money whatsoever."
One possible source for the money is the half-cent transportation sales tax, which accounts for more than a third of public transportation's revenue and is expected to generate more than $9.6 million in fiscal 2011.
Financial records show a progressively larger percentage of that money is being used for street maintenance and airport subsidy each year.
In fiscal 2008, 16 percent of the transportation sales tax went to street and sidewalk maintenance. In fiscal 2011, it was 52 percent, or about $5 million. During that same period, Columbia Regional Airport’s share of the tax jumped from 1 percent to 14 percent, or about $1.3 million.
Matthes said those numbers would likely increase to $5.1 million for streets and $2.7 million for the airport in fiscal 2012.
City buses received 19 percent of the tax in fiscal 2008, and 22 percent, or about $2 million last year. Matthes said that number would likely go down to $1.6 million in the next budget.
"We believe that a large proportion of that transportation sales tax should go to public transportation," said Ian Thomas, executive director of the PedNet Coalition. The coalition is part of Columbians for Modern, Efficient Transit, whose three-year goal is to triple Columbia Transit's service by expanding evening and weekend service, increasing bus frequency and expanding into areas currently unserved.
Thomas said putting resources into public transportation will help roads.
“If the bus came every 15 minutes and we add Sunday and evening service, ridership would go way up,” Thomas said. “Thirty people on the bus are a lot less wear and tear on our roads than 30 people in 30 SUVs."
Mayor Bob McDavid said the recent trend toward more spending on roads is appropriate, given the results of the latest city-sponsored citizen survey.
“The number one source of dissatisfaction with the city was with streets and sidewalks,” McDavid said. “We’re not going to be cutting back on road maintenance to increase transit ridership.”
But Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe said she will push for the pilot program to be included in the upcoming budget despite the city's financial issues.
"We can look deeper and see if we can free up that money," Hoppe said. "Grants, federal funding, higher fees for evening bus service and some money from the Columbia Visitor's Bureau" are all funding options, she said.
Second Ward Councilman Jason Thornhill said the buses are a worthwhile investment, though he is unsure where the money could come from.
“Every penny we’ve found to put into transit has paid off,” Thornhill said, referring to the spike in ridership from about 1.8 million in 2008 to more than 2 million in 2010.
Some Columbia residents who now rely on buses said extending service can’t wait.
“Life does not stop at six at night; you still have to buy groceries and do your personal business,” said Michael McCloud, chairman of the Public Transportation Advisory Commission.
“I would jump up and down for joy if they extended the hours because there’s so many people like me that don’t have a car,” McCloud said. “That’s their only way of getting around.”
Erika Van Vranken, co-chairwoman of the Public Transportation Advisory Commission, said that after the commission's Thursday meeting at the Daniel Boone City Building, she would wait an hour for the bus.
"We don't get out til 8:30 p.m.; the next bus that goes to my house is at 9:25 p.m.," Van Vranken said. "During the week, Monday through Wednesday, I have to take the bus straight home after work; there isn't much time to do anything else before the last bus leaves."
The council will discuss and modify the 2012 fiscal budget several times between now and Sept. 19, when it is officially adopted.