COLUMBIA — Eighty-three people stand at the bus stop in front of The Reserve at Columbia at 8:40 a.m. Tuesday and wait to ride the city bus for free.
Once on board, it's hot. Riders are pressed up against one another like they're in a mosh pit. The pungent scents of body odor, perfume and cologne fill the air.
Proposed transit changes to Columbia Transit for fiscal 2012 as of Sept. 9 include:
- Reducing services, such as eliminating the last hour of Thursday and Friday service.
- Increasing all fares by 50 percent to 67 percent. The regular fare, for example, would rise by half to $1.50.
- Reducing half-fare eligibility only to students older than 18. Students who now pay 50 cents for a bus ride will pay $1.50 per ride if the council approves the changes.
Full buses are hard to find on other Columbia Transit routes. But when the price to ride is nothing, it can be more attractive to students to get on a crowded bus than to drive a car to and from campus, especially considering the price of gas and the frustration that comes with finding a parking place and feeding the meter.
These students are guaranteed free bus service to and from their apartments during the fall and spring semesters. Contracts with the city, through which the complex owners pay certain costs in exchange for free rides for their residents, allow this to happen. But these contracts fail to cover the city's costs — by a long shot.
Even if across-the-board fare increases included in the proposed city budget for fiscal 2012 become a reality, residents at The Reserve and three other apartment complexes along Columbia Transit's Black and Gold routes in southern Columbia wouldn't pay a dime for daytime service.
Transportation Supervisor Drew Brooks said the contracts cover less than 20 percent of the expense of running the routes, which includes the cost of drivers, fuel and bus maintenance.
The city is projecting that by the end of fiscal 2011 on Sept. 30, the Black and Gold routes will have provided 819,730 rides, but nearly all those passengers are paying nothing. The only revenue generated on the Black and Gold routes comes from the contracts with apartment complexes or from students who buy semester passes or pay fares because they live in complexes without contracts, Brooks said.
"The majority of those are contracted rides," Brooks said. "So a vast majority of people are riding free at the fare box."
The Gold Route has had a 738 percent increase in ridership since 2007, largely because the city has entered contracts as apartment complexes have been built along Old 63 and elsewhere.
"You can pretty much track our expense problems along with increasing the service on those routes," Brooks said.
City Manager Mike Matthes has said the transit system is losing $100,000 a month and would run out of money by July without fare increases and service reductions.
City transit staff initially viewed the contracts as a way of jump-starting service to the student apartments and keeping thousands of cars off city streets. However they were justified, the routes now have become financially unsustainable.
How the contracts work
The contracts represent the old way of doing business, Matthes said during a meeting Sept. 6, when the City Council was considering a new contract with The Pointe at Rock Quarry Park and amendments to contracts with The Reserve and with Campus Lodge that would have extended evening service without students paying for it.
Council members rejected all three contracts to remedy what they view as an inequitable benefit to students. Mayor Bob McDavid argued that it makes sense to charge students a market rate for riding city buses. Semester passes now cost $60; the proposed 2012 budget would boost that price to $100.
In a presentation to the council, city staff said that every ride the transit system provides costs an average of $2.79. Each ride on the Black and Gold routes brings in 16 cents. At 819,730 rides for the year, that would be a net loss of $2.16 million. Brooks, however, said the actual cost per ride on the apartment routes probably is far less than on other routes.
First Ward Councilman Fred Schmidt said the student routes aren't fair.
"Right now the students are paying 16 cents and the poor will pay 75 cents," Schmidt said. "That’s just not sustainable."
Matthes explained that the rationale behind the contracts is that they ensure at least some revenue in exchange for extending routes a little farther as new apartments are built.
The first contract with an apartment complex was approved in 2006, but the agreements began to gain steam when the city approved three more in 2007, Brooks said. The complexes that have contracts now are Campus Lodge, The Reserve, Gateway at Columbia and The Cottages of Columbia. Campus View has a verbal agreement with the city to buy a minimum of 100 semester passes in exchange for bus service, Public Works spokeswoman Jill Stedem said.
McDavid noted at the meeting that there is a disparity in what the city is charging each complex and that none is paying a rate that comes close to $100 per person, which the 2012 budget proposes as the new cost of a semester pass.
Based on McDavid's assumption that students in the complexes probably ride the bus twice each weekday for 16 weeks during the semester, the city would make the following per ride during fiscal 2012:
- Full fare: $1.50
- Semester pass: 62.5 cents
- Residents of Gateway: 17.4 cents
- Residents of The Reserve: 15.1 cents
- Residents of Campus Lodge: 10.4 cents
The Cottages does not pay fees by semester. Instead, it bought two used 22-passenger vans worth about $76,000 and deeded them to the city in exchange for five years of service, Brooks said. Projecting the price of the vans over 10 semesters of service, the city is being compensated at a rate of about 9.2 cents per ride.
Contracts for daytime service
The rejection of the new contracts Sept. 6 came a little more than a month after the council approved three-year contracts for daytime bus service with The Reserve and with Gateway at a cost of $12,542 per semester each.
Schmidt said Thursday that he had no idea those agreements were passed.
"If we approved those contracts that would have been a mistake," Schmidt said. "It was probably on the consent agenda and we overlooked it."
Items on the consent agenda are those deemed to be so non-controversial that they don't warrant public discussion.
In a July 22 memo to the City Council, Public Works Director John Glascock detailed the contracts and urged the City Council to approve them.
"These agreements allow Columbia Transit better planning opportunities and the ability to more efficiently manage its resources," Glascock wrote. "This has been a very successful public/private partnership."
Although Glascock wrote that the fees "allow Columbia Transit to provide the service and remove hundreds of private cars from the City roadways each day," they don't pay all of the associated operational expenses.
The new contract for the The Pointe at Rock Quarry Park, which the council rejected last week, would have been worth $7,000 a year. McDavid, however, said the contracts are a bad idea.
"We’re not solving the problem of a transit system that’s losing $100,000 a month by negotiating contracts like this," McDavid said at the meeting. "If we vote down the contract we’ll lose $3,500 a semester. If half the students buy a semester pass, we’ll get $8,000."
Matthes noted that the city could glean some valuable information if it continues to provide service to The Pointe at Rock Quarry Park without a contract. Instead, it would charge the students normal fares. "You could almost look at this loop as a pilot and to see what the market will do."
Evening service fares
Students living at The Reserve and Campus Lodge now will have to pay for weekday evening service, and they’re not happy about it.
After the City Council rejected two contracts that would have ensured free bus service to those complexes from 6 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, the complexes started gathering signatures on petitions urging the City Council to fully fund the evening routes.
Zach Merkle, a resident of The Reserve, often has class until 5 p.m. Occasionally, he has to stay on campus after class. Because he has no campus parking pass, he'll have to pay for bus service.
"I don’t really have much of a choice," Merkle said.
Andrew Ilges, another resident at The Reserve, often rides the bus but usually not in the evenings. Despite this, he knows many people are affected.
"My roommates and a lot of other people use it a lot, so they’re kind of upset about it," Ilges said.
Representatives of the companies that own the apartments had no comment.
On its Facebook page, Campus Lodge wrote the following message to its residents:
"Disappointed about the sudden cancellation of our evening bus contract? So are we, so it's time we are heard! Stop by the lodge now and sign our petition. We're going to protest the city council meeting on the 19th of September and we NEED YOUR SUPPORT!"
In an email to residents of The Reserve, community manager Matthew Colgin informed residents of the council’s decision.
"After successful negotiations with Columbia Transit we were able to get a contract together to be submitted to the city council this week," Colgin wrote in the email. "This contract was submitted at the last city council meeting and denied due to the council being misinformed about the details of the contract; in other words, it was not read properly."
Matthes, speaking to the City Council on Sept. 6, recommended that the council reject the amended contracts, given its refusal to approve a deal with The Pointe. The evening service agreements, he said, were “way worse” than the proposed contract with The Pointe.
Fixing the problem won’t be easy. Brooks and his staff are gearing up to address it.
"We’ve pretty much been instructed that as soon as this budget process is done here at the end of September, we’re going to get started on 2013 and begin working on that for the next year," Brooks said.
McDavid, at an Aug. 22 council work session, said he wants the city to completely revamp the bus system, modeling it after those in other cities that are home to large universities.
Ames, Iowa, and Iowa City, Iowa, home to Iowa State University and the University of Iowa, respectively, and Champaign-Urbana, Ill., home to the University of Illinois, are potential models. In those cities, students pay fees to their university in exchange for "free" use of the buses.
There were about 2 million rides on Columbia Transit last year. That's equal to 20 rides for every person in Columbia. McDavid said that isn't bad if you look at Jefferson City or Springfield, which have 10 rides and 7 rides, respectively. But, he said, Ames, Iowa, has 100 rides for every person.
McDavid hopes his ideas will evolve into a plan that would quintuple ridership, and he plans to appoint a task force next week that will begin to explore options.
“If you transpose those numbers to our population, you’re looking at a model that should generate not 2 million rides a year but 10 million rides a year, McDavid said.