COLUMBIA — The mayor's Transit System Task Force is broken.
MU has hired a consulting firm to assess the transportation needs of its students, an apparent break with Mayor Bob McDavid's plan to revamp the bus system using student fees. Solstice Transportation Group, based in Atlanta, will arrive in Columbia the week of Feb. 6 and be paid $65,000 from MU Parking and Transportation Services funds.
Jackie Jones, the university's vice chancellor for administrative services and its representative on the task force, said the goal is to learn from students how they want their transportation needs met.
"It's hard to respond to possible solutions that have been put on the table without knowing what the needs of Mizzou students are," Jones told reporters Wednesday. "We have to ask, 'What are the unique issues at Mizzou?' That has to come from within Mizzou."
Mitch Skyer, president of Solstice Transportation Group, said the study will consist of anecdotal and data-based evidence compiled during site visits, interviews, field surveys and use of the city bus system.
Jones said she hopes the first phase of "information gathering" will be done by the end of March; Skyer said he intends to provide a list of recommendations to MU by the end of the semester.
McDavid said he doesn't have a problem with MU hiring its own consultant, but that he believes collaboration is the best model.
"I don't want to see us do three separate systems," McDavid said, referring to private apartment shuttles, university buses and city buses.
MU decided to hire the firm shortly after talks broke down between the city and university representatives on the task force.
The group, charged with revamping a financially troubled bus system, met twice. The most recent meeting, in November, was unproductive, said Jake Sloan, a student representative to the task force and Senate speaker for the Missouri Student Association.
"When the task force was created, it was my understanding that we would work toward a solution," Sloan said. "What it turned into was telling students, 'If you don't accept the city's proposal, bus service will end.'"
Columbia Transit's recent financial woes are well documented. They resulted in the formation of the task force last summer and a tumultuous City Council meeting last September, when the council cut the last hour of bus service from the Thursday and Friday night schedules and increased fares from $1 to $1.50.
Even with those unpopular moves, McDavid said the system remains unsustainable. According to city figures, Columbia Transit's budget is roughly $7 million annually. Fares, federal grants and taxes contribute 80 percent of that revenue, leaving the city with a bill for the leftover $1.5 million.
McDavid has said that the bus system's Black and Gold routes, which serve thousands of students in apartment complexes on Old 63 and Providence Road, will be eliminated if nothing changes. In a presentation during the November task force meeting, City Manager Mike Matthes said other changes are possible. The possibilities include:
- Ending Thursday and Friday evening service, as well as all Saturday service, in fall 2012.
- Removing peak service, which would extend wait times, also suggested to take effect fall 2012.
City officials invited owners and managers of apartment complexes along the Black and Gold routes to a meeting at City Hall on Jan. 9. They were told the apartments would have to pay a rate of $62 per resident each semester to keep the routes going. That's a much higher price than they pay now.
Scott Sedgwick, general manager at Campus View Apartments off Providence Road, said some of the complexes will use the city at a higher cost, while others will explore private options.
"It forces the apartment communities to scramble now to ensure there will be transportation next year," Sedgwick said.
MU has no plan to intervene should the Black and Gold routes stop running at the end of the semester.
"There are all kinds of things being discussed," Jones said, "(including) city buses, the apartment complexes having their own buses as well as students deciding that the best thing to do is commute to campus."