Columbia looks outside Missouri for bus system alternatives

Thursday, February 16, 2012 | 10:23 p.m. CST; updated 1:37 p.m. CST, Thursday, March 1, 2012

COLUMBIA — City Manager Mike Matthes and Mayor Bob McDavid discussed the city's financially faltering bus system on the eve of the city's educational trip to Ames, Iowa.

The duo answered questions and provided opinions Thursday night at the Public Transportation Advisory Commission meeting at City Hall.

The trip to Iowa is one of three excursions the city is going on to explore efficient college town bus systems. The trips will cost $10,000.

"There's only so much you can learn on Google," Matthes said, referring to looking at bus systems on a map. "Then you've got to go and see it."

McDavid spoke frankly about the bus system's recent woes. 

"Gloom and doom is accurate. We're at a crisis," he said.

Columbia's transit system is facing a budgetary disaster, losing $1 million per year. Compare that to 2007, when the transit system had a $3.5 million reserve.

Unless it finds additional resources, the city will have to shorten bus routes and limit service hours by October.

McDavid puts some of the blame on ill-advised contracts with off-campus student apartment complexes that dramatically discount student bus fares.

"We established contracts with apartments that were devastating financially," McDavid said. "We're hemorrhaging $400,000 to $500,000 a year on those routes."

Finding an efficient system is one of the city's goals in Iowa. The city thinks students who park at meters and university parking lots could be an untapped source of revenue for the bus system.

The city is also willing to redraw routes, looping them through campus in hopes of picking up more passengers.

"Every route should be on the table," McDavid said.

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Mal Reynolds February 17, 2012 | 4:20 p.m.

Three words:
Monorail! Monorail! Monorail!

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith February 18, 2012 | 5:10 a.m.

Monorails or sky hooks notwithstanding, here's what our intrepid civil servants are going to discover when they make their $10,000 trip to Ames, Iowa.

Ames,Iowa has a population of about 58,000 and boasts an attractive downtown business district, but unlike Columbia the business district is totally separate from the ISU campus. The campus sits well to the west, on the way to the city of Boone, Iowa. You cannot walk from the ISU campus to the business district (well, you definitely wouldn't want to). In Columbia both MU and the two colleges are very close to the business district.

If you are an ISU student and do not live in the dormitories or in a Greek house, having bus service is highly desirable, as parking cars on campus is very restricted (as it is on many campuses).

CyRide, the bus service, is jointly underwritten by Iowa State University, Iowa State student organization and the city of Ames. ISU students showing student ID ride FREE, not just to classes but nights and weekends as well. (The best restaurants and shops are downtown.) Other riders pay a reasonable fee. CyRide runs regular routes within the Ames-ISU area. Operational frequency is said to be good, including late evening times on weekends.

[We are all aware that in Columbia certain students and non-students ride bicycles, mopeds or motorcycles to work or class. I seriously doubt that any sane person would attempt that during a normal Ames, Iowa winter; wind chill can be brutal. Better to take a nice warm CyRide bus.]

So what do we have with CyRide? A system two-thirds of which is subsidized by the university and its student organization, and which operates in an environment where the downtown business district and the university are entirely SEPARATE from each other. More than a bit different from Columbia.

Now, having provided this information, may I lay claim to part of that $10,000?

PS: University of Iowa, Iowa City, is more like MU in that it butts up against downtown Iowa City. But the campus is "messier," being bisected by the Iowa River. The hilly campus has a certain "charm," but from the standpoint of both motorized and foot traffic it's a disaster.

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