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Columbia Missourian

City Council candidates discuss future of Columbia bus system

By Jacob Kirn
March 28, 2012 | 5:42 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — The city bus system is at a crossroads. Financial issues have reduced service hours and increased fares, and more drastic changes are a real possibility for fall.

A major financial downfall of the system has been the Black and Gold routes, which transport thousands of students to and from MU. City officials have said those routes would cease to exist unless apartment owners agree to pay higher fees. Several have done so, meaning the routes will continue in at least a modified form. It remains to be seen how apartment complexes that do not sign up for continued city bus service will transport students to and from campus in the fall, though private buses are one possibility.

At the same time, MU has hired a consultant to assess the transportation needs of students, which revolve heavily around the high-density apartments along U.S. 63 and Providence Road.

The city, in turn, organized a series of educational trips to three college towns — Ames, Iowa, Lawrence, Kan., and Champaign-Urbana, Ill. — which use student fees along with other funding sources to make bus routes extensive, quick and student-centric. Mayor Bob McDavid, along with other city officials and council members, have said they favor this city-university collaborative model.

The Missourian asked the five City Council candidates for their thoughts about the bus system.

Sixth Ward candidate Barbara Hoppe

Hoppe, an incumbent seeking a third council term, said overhauling the transit system is important for her constituents and for the entire city.

The key, she said, is to ensure reliable funding for improvements. She has been studying financial models of successful transit systems nationwide for several years. She cited the system at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

"The funding part of it has always been a focus," she said. "You don’t make change overnight."

Hoppe proposed the creation of the Public Transportation Advisory Commission, which was approved by the council in December 2009, to examine how the system might better serve Columbia residents and how to ensure stable funding.

Hoppe called public transit a "basic service," comparing its importance to that of utilities. She said there’s an argument for subsidizing that service, as the city does now with its transportation sales tax.

The city’s budget for fiscal 2012 allocates $5.5 million in transportation tax revenue for sidewalk improvements, $1.9 million to Columbia Regional Airport and $1.5 million to buses. Over the past two years, allocations to the airport have increased and those to the transit system have decreased slightly.

Hoppe said her priority has been bringing potential financial models, including a split between MU and the city, to council members’ attention. 

"I'm happy that the city is having an evaluation done and that the students are discussing it," Hoppe said. "That's a perfect storm, as far as I can tell."

Sixth Ward candidate Bill Tillotson

Tillotson said he would like to see the city collaborate with MU to raise more revenue for the bus system.

"I share the mayor's vision," Tillotson said. "The transit system is important, but we've got to be able to pay for it."

Tillotson said that if the city and MU can't reach an agreement, the council will have to look for other sources of income. That could include higher fares.

"That may be one area we have to look at sternly."

Tillotson said the city also should consider charging more for placing ads on buses and seeking more federal grant money.

In fiscal 2012, fares are projected to pay for just 29 percent of transit's operating expenses. Advertising on buses, which began in 2010, provides a little more than 1 percent of the bus system's operating expenses.

Second Ward candidate Bill Pauls

Pauls said he fully supports McDavid's efforts to make Columbia’s transit system more student-centric and to advocate for cost sharing between the city and MU. He specifically praised the mayor’s willingness to re-evaluate all aspects of the transit system and to examine the different models in college towns throughout the Midwest.

"It's an issue we didn't get out in front of," Pauls said of the current economic and service woes of Columbia's bus system. "I think we need to backtrack a little bit. They mayor has done that."

Pauls, an Iowa native, said he was particularly impressed, as were city staff, by the CyRide model at Iowa State University in Ames. CyRide’s $8.2 million cost is shared by students, the university, and city, state and federal funding. The student portion comes from a $125 annual fee charged to all students.

CyRide also carries about three times as many passengers annually as the Columbia system and offers service seven days a week until midnight or later.

"I love that model there," Pauls said. "I think everybody that came back from Ames really likes the way that’s being done. It’s been working really well for a long time."

Pauls said he thinks the hard work by the mayor and city staff will pay off with a financially responsible solution that benefits all parties soon.

"I think we’re on the right track," Pauls said. 

Second Ward candidate Michael Trapp

Trapp said the only way the city can expand the bus system is to collaborate with MU.

"We can't hemorrhage money," Trapp said. And the collaboration seems to be the best way to solve the financial problems and expand transit, he said.

As far as other funding sources, Trapp said he would not advocate taking money away from road or sidewalk maintenance for buses. If the city increases its lodging tax, a portion of that new revenue could be funneled toward the bus system — "especially if we create a shuttle service that goes from the airport to hotels and downtown," Trapp said. 

City officials have contemplated asking voters to increase the city's tax on hotel and motel rooms to 7 percent. It stands at 4 percent now. Thus far, they have looked to the lodging tax to fund renovations at the Columbia Regional Airport terminal building.

Second Ward candidate Mike Atkinson

Atkinson said the bus system should be more self-sufficient, and he advocates higher fares.

"The fees are going to have to sustain the success, especially if we want to increase the hours and coverage area," Atkinson said.

The transit systems in the three Midwestern college towns visited by city staff are heavily subsidized by the universities and by local and state taxes. 

In Champaign-Urbana, considered one of the best transit systems in any U.S. college town, the state of Illinois covers well more than half of the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District's $27 million budget. 

Atkinson said he would like to see city staff vie for more grants. In fiscal 2012, grants are projected to cover roughly 25 percent of transit's operating expenses.

Missourian reporter Kip Hill contributed to this article.