COLUMBIA — No single item has drawn more ire in the city's proposed budget than changes to public transit, and it's clear city officials know it.
Residents will get a chance to speak about proposed fare increases and service cuts during a series of public hearings on the budget proposed for fiscal year 2012, to be held during the City Council's regular meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
The PedNet Coaltion plans to have at least a dozen members at the meeting. But executive director Ian Thomas said he worries those most affected by the transit changes won't be able to make themselves heard.
"It's very difficult for those riding public transit to attend these meetings," Thomas said. "Without service on Monday or Tuesday evenings, most cannot make it out."
The city's bus system — which represents just $7.2 million of the proposed $430 million budget — will have six agenda items dedicated to it at Tuesday's meeting.
In addition to the public hearings on the transit budget, the council will also hear a report from the Public Transportation Advisory Commission.
Other agenda items pertaining to transit include:
- Three agreements with student apartment complexes on the south side of town. One would be a new agreement with The Pointe at Rock Quarry Park; the others are amended agreements with Campus Lodge Apartments and The Reserve at Columbia.
- Creation of a Transit System Task Force.
- Potential advertisements on waiting shelters and benches.
Across-the-board fare increases of at least 50 percent remain the most publicly discussed item on the transit agenda. Higher fares would be compounded by a reduction in eligibility for half-fares, which would only be available to select groups, as mandated by federal law. Those no longer eligible for half fares — including students, low-income individuals, people on Medicaid and children younger than five — would experience a 200 percent fare increase.
In opposition to City Manager Mike Matthes' proposal to reduce eligibility, the transportation advisory commission issued three recommendations following its Aug. 25 meeting, including an option that would eliminate half-fare eligibility for students older than 18 while maintaining it for all other current categories.
PedNet's Thomas said he agreed with the commission, adding that "the city has presented no estimated budget savings for cutting these groups."
Additionally, Thomas said, Columbians for Modern, Efficient Transit, a PedNet program, advocates the elimination of fares for children younger than 5.
And though the transportation advisory commission didn't pass a motion to maintain Columbia Transit's evening hours Thursday through Saturday, they did express uneasiness with Matthes' current plan.
“The Public Transportation Advisory Commission recognizes the budget situation and that cuts are necessary, but are very concerned with a reduction in the operating hours, particularly evening hours," wrote Public Works Director John Glascock in a memo to the City Council.
Cuts to evening service hours could produce a loss of 12,402 riders, or one-half of 1 percent of Columbia Transit's total ridership, according to a presentation prepared for the City Council's Aug. 22 work session on the transit issue.
Thomas said his organization is urging the City Council to go beyond the transportation advisory commission's recommendations, and find ways to increase ridership and preserve evening service on Thursdays and Fridays until a new system can be put in place.
In response to Mayor Bob McDavid's proposed revamping of the city bus system, presented at the Aug. 22 work session, the transportation advisory commission also endorsed "an initiative to create an improved public transit system for all of Columbia," according to Glascock's memo.
The council is scheduled to vote on whether to create a Transit System Task Force, another element of the mayor's proposal. The task force's goal would be "to develop a model that will provide a substantial increase in service to student customers and that will be financially sustainable." Membership would include:
- Three MU students;
- One Columbia College student;
- One Stephens College student;
- One member of city administration, to be appointed by Matthes;
- One member of the transportation advisory commission, to be appointed by McDavid;
- One member of the PedNet Coalition, to be appointed by McDavid;
Thomas said PedNet is in great support of McDavid's "plan for long-term viability of public transit" in Columbia.
Other budget items on the agenda for Tuesday's meeting include hearings on the Special Business District, proposed increases in fees for health services and parks and recreation program and utility rates.
A final public hearing on the proposed budget for fiscal 2012 is scheduled for 7 p.m. Sept. 19. The budget takes effect Oct. 1.