First, the good news.
This month, the Federal Transit Administration and the Missouri Public Transit Association presented Columbia Transit with an award of excellence for achieving the largest percent increase in ridership among urban transit providers throughout the state.
The agency has received these honors every year since 2007.
As a Columbia resident who frequently travels by bus, often with my bike, I can attest to Columbia Transit’s outstanding service.
The buses are clean and on-time, drivers are helpful and courteous, and the routes and schedules are extremely well-designed to provide the best possible service within a very limited budget. As Second Ward Councilman Jason Thornhill said, “Every penny we’ve found to put into transit has paid off.”
However, in spite of these successes, devastating service cuts and significant price hikes are threatened.
According to the City of Columbia’s proposed budget for the 2012 fiscal year — which begins Oct. 1 — evening service will be eliminated. Saturday service and several predominantly student routes will be reduced.
At the same time, the full fare will be increased from $1 to $1.50, half fare from 50 cents to 75 cents and eligibility for half fare will be cut back to the minimum required by federal law.
Overall, $2.7 million will be cut from Columbia Transit’s combined bus replacement and operating budget this year — an enormous proportion of the city’s overall budget reduction with the entire burden being placed squarely on the shoulders of residents least able afford it.
Everyone understands these are tough economic times, but such an inequitable approach goes beyond decency. This proposal also goes beyond reason because it will exacerbate the very problem that has, in large part, put the city in this budget crunch.
The transit cuts are deemed necessary in order to pay for additional street repairs, whose budget will increase 60 percent to $1.6 million.
Now there’s no question Columbia’s streets are in terrible shape — as a cyclist I am well aware of the potholes. But let’s pause for a minute to think through the reasons the streets are in such poor shape.
Consider that most journeys are accomplished by private automobile, usually with only one or two passengers.
City buses carry 20 or 30 passengers and weigh the same as just two or three typical SUVs. Since buses only account for 1 percent to 2 percent of all journeys while private automobiles account for 90 percent, it is clear that, as a community, we are not using our transportation resources efficiently.
Instead of cutting service, the city should be developing a long-term plan for transit expansion. By providing a more extensive and frequent service including evenings and weekends, ridership would increase substantially. People who currently drive would choose to ride the bus, reducing inefficient automobile journeys and ensuring the road surfaces last longer and save the city money.
Columbia residents have very clearly signaled their desire to see an expansion of bus service — both through the annual increases in ridership every year since 2007 and the city's 2011 DirectionFinder Survey.
While city officials have cited the survey to justify the reallocation of funds from transit to street repairs, a more complete and objective analysis leads to the opposite conclusion.
It is true that transit expansion ranked eighth out of 14 possible priorities for the city among respondents, with street and infrastructure maintenance coming first, but the options that scored higher than transit expansion consisted of issues that directly affect everyone, including street maintenance, public safety and economic development, and goals that are also achieved by transit expansion, including reduced congestion and environmental protections.
It is unfair to put "transit expansion" on the same list as “maintaining streets” and "public safety" when very few people currently use transit — and then use the fact that transit expansion only came eighth out of 14 as a reason to cut transit.
Considering that fewer than 10 percent of Columbia citizens currently ride the bus, coming in eighth out of 14 with a whopping 24 percent of citizens placing a "very high priority" on transit expansion is an extremely important result.
It shows that the Columbians for Modern, Efficient Transit (CoMET) campaign is achieving its goal of convincing people who do not currently ride the bus to support transit expansion. It would be a reasonable option for them to ride the bus and contribute to a more healthy, environmentally sustainable and economical transportation system.
This result is further reinforced on page 20 of the survey, where "Availability of public transportation” was voted the most important transportation service for the city to provide. Clearly, Columbia residents want to see improvements in transit services.
Ian Thomas is the executive director of the PedNet Coalition.