McDavid unveils bus system revamp, but plans will have to wait

Monday, August 22, 2011 | 10:33 p.m. CDT; updated 1:18 p.m. CDT, Monday, September 19, 2011

COLUMBIA — Mayor Bob McDavid unveiled a plan to revamp Columbia's bus system at a City Council public transit work session Monday night.

The plan outlined a more university-centric system and would create a transit task force that McDavid hopes will quadruple ridership in the near future to 8 million riders a year.


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"There are six million customers a year we're not serving," McDavid said. "I think we have the wrong model in Columbia for a university town."

The models McDavid wants to draw on are more student-centric, he said, and feature frequent routes, extended hours, and strong collaborations between colleges and cities.

First Ward Councilman Fred Schmidt agreed.

"I think it's a wonderful idea and I'd really like to pursue this," he said. 

The mayor's plan will have to wait, though. It's too late in this year's budget process to start putting his new ideas into action. Instead, City Manager Mike Matthes laid out the public transit budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

John Glascock, the city's public works director, detailed Matthes’ proposal, which includes:

  • Reducing services, such as eliminating Thursday through Saturday routes after 6:25 p.m.
  • Increasing all fares by 50 percent to 67 percent.
  • Making half fares available only to those mandated by federal law.
  • Shortening three bus routes.
  • Eliminating shuttles to MU football games.

Glascock said half-fare eligibility would be reduced and would no longer include students, people on Medicaid and children younger than 5. Those no longer eligible for half fares would see a 200 percent increase in the cost per ride. Also, semester passes for students would increase from $60 to $100.

"A year ago we had a problem," McDavid said. "Now we have a crisis."

Because the federal government matches a lot of what the city pays for transit, it was difficult for Matthes to effectively cut this section of the budget.

"You cut a dollar and you're only saving 50 cents," Matthes said. "You have to cut so much deeper ... than you would otherwise. It is a frustrating exercise."

The PedNet Coalition, a local transportation advocacy group, recently did a survey that looked at some of these issues. In it, more than half of the 907 respondents indicated they'd pay as much as $1.50 per ride.

That's in line with what Matthes proposed, but some of his other changes didn't match the survey results. It found, for example, that most survey respondents supported extended service hours.

City council members weren't completely satisfied with the plan, but there was sentiment that it had to be done.

"We don't like it, but it's the best we can do," McDavid said. "That has to be done. There's no money in the bank."

Members of the public weren't allowed to speak at the meeting, but a few presented their ideas at the first public budget meeting last Monday.

Christian Young, a Columbia resident since 1998, uses the public transit system frequently and spoke then.

“When I arrived, I didn’t drive, and the buses were my only way to get to work,” Young said. “Limitations on times that the routes ran, particularly on the weekends, limited my ability to do my job and damaged my employability.”

Young said cutting service on evenings and weekends and changing routes disproportionally harms people who most need that service, including students, seniors with disabilities and others who are most vulnerable.

The Public Transportation Advisory Commission will discuss the budget proposal during its meeting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at City Hall, 701 E. Broadway.

The council's next public hearing on the budget is scheduled for 7 p.m. Sept. 6 at City Hall.

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Toni Messina August 23, 2011 | 8:12 a.m.

The 200% fare increase equates to a $1 increase for those who would no longer be eligible for half-fares: students; lower-income people; those with Medicaid coverage; and kids under 5.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin August 23, 2011 | 10:55 a.m.

Seems like we go through this every year, almost according to a playbook.

City leaders cry poverty in the midst of tremendous luxury (e.g. their own spanking new offices) and some grand new spending plan (e.g. parking garages).

Then, they cut -- or threaten to cut -- an important or popular human service.

A few years ago, it was a small recreation program at Paquin Towers.

Last year, it was a fire station in the First Ward.

This year, it's public transit, in a city that supposedly prides itself on reducing individual automobile use.

Meanwhile, City Hall continues building giant, multi-million dollar garages and upping rates at all the parking meters that dominate downtown streets.

Build giant garages, up parking meter fees, cut public transit. What's the message here?

Sounds like it's to force people into cars and then into these ill-advised garages, which desperately need revenue lest their exorbitant price tags push Columbia toward bankruptcy.

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield August 23, 2011 | 11:48 a.m.

Maybe the city could fund the system with the fines on the contractor and landowner that have been using the old Osco parking lot as a staging area for the past few months.

The city did levy fines, right?

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire August 23, 2011 | 12:42 p.m.

If the city buses do not run to the same hour every night people will cease to use them to transport themselves to and from work in the evenings. That would reduce the number of riders, decreasing any chance that the city might break even. It also seems to be the opposite of what the mayor would like to see. I think he has a good idea this time. It would probably work.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro August 23, 2011 | 3:33 p.m.

Wouldn't it be a hoot if Garagezilla, Short Street Garage and other municipal garages around a Special Business District became very desired parking spots should the inner streets of this commercial/residential area ban private cars to create a bicycle/pedway only zone?
Also, perhaps this town just isn't ready to commit towards a really good public subsidized bus system if we're looking to court college students who use cars bought for them by daddy and use parents' credit cards for gasoline and bar drinks.
What kind of bus system will we have if its service radius is based on student resident populations living as close to campus as possible?
McDavid should encourage better partnerships with colleges in our town, but it's going to require changing the desirability of living close to campus and having the independence which owning a car instills in many of us.
However, creative moving around of monies might solve a few problems. Personally, I'd like to see High School and Junior High Schoolers using public buses instead of those expensive door-to-door school buses.
How much are we paying to outsource school bus transportation anyways?

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield August 24, 2011 | 12:00 p.m.

Ray, students currently are 74% of Columbia Transit's ridership. I'm not surprised that the city would choose to focus on its largest demographic. Until enough additional funding magically appears to fund a larger system, the city had to cater to its existing customers lest CT lose them, too.

BTW, I was hoping that my earlier post about the Osco parking lot would prompt someone in the know to provide an update on that situation.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro August 24, 2011 | 1:11 p.m.

@Jimmy B:
Of course the city should serve college students and have a liaison committee for public transportation with its administrators. Protecting one's base is important. However, if 74% of the current bus ridership are college students, I'd say we've pretty much saturated that market, unless we get the students' parents involved and maybe have their children live further away from campus.
The article also quotes McDavid as saying that their are 6 million customers a year we are not serving. If you're not serving them, they're not customers. Who are these 6 million potential customers and why are they not on the bus?
Also, who owns that empty Osco building and parking lot property? Maybe the city should use eminent domain and use that Providence and Broadway location for some good.

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield August 24, 2011 | 1:24 p.m.

No, 74% of ridership isn't the same as 74% of all students. So unless 74% of all students currently ride the bus, that market segment still has plenty of upside. The question is whether CT can attract more students by simply tweaking the existing system or whether it requires additional routes.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro August 24, 2011 | 2:13 p.m.

Can you please refer me to the documentation which shows this 74% figure. How does the city know that the rider is a college student? Are they counting each college student as a single customer or are repeat rides by the same college student being used? How many college students do not currently ride the city bus? Why do you think they choose not to? How many Columbia residents, other than college students choose not to ride the bus on a continuous basis?
Would park and ride sites at I-70 exits help increase ridership?
My point is that unless McDavid can get the colleges to ban students from using their cars, or have the universities underwrite city bus service, the college student population of bus users seems to be well culled.
Why not explore more than just college student ridership. Like for instance high school students, instead of outsourcing to First Student, or express buses/shuttles during rush hours to take the load off of Stadium.

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield August 24, 2011 | 2:26 p.m.

Ray, the ridership demographics probably are available from the city website. I got the 74% figure from yesterday's Tribune story. When you wrote that "perhaps this town just isn't ready to commit towards a really good public subsidized bus system if we're looking to court college students who use cars bought for them by daddy," I assumed that you were referring to research showing that most students are driving.

I agree that high school students are a demographic that should be considered. I would add junior high students, too. In major cities such as Chicago, it's not uncommon to see elementary school students taking buses and the subway.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro August 24, 2011 | 3:05 p.m.

Jimmy, Actually I assumed that most college students get around town and to and from class via pogo stick. But that could be just me.
In keeping with topic, here's an interesting story:
I'm also wondering if college student usage figures are skewed by those special landlord paid buses which were not renewed.

(Report Comment)

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