UPDATE: FastCAT proposal intended to revitalize ailing bus system

Thursday, May 24, 2012 | 5:13 p.m. CDT; updated 11:51 p.m. CDT, Thursday, May 24, 2012

View FastCAT route in a larger map

COLUMBIA — Columbia officials are looking to increase ridership on the city's public transit system with a proposed bus route catering to students.

Mayor Bob McDavid announced the proposal at a press conference Thursday morning in the Daniel Boone City Building.

The FastCAT (Campus Access Transit) route would have 11 stops completing a circuit through MU and downtown Columbia. Three or four buses are recommended for the route, which would operate on a 30-minute loop, McDavid estimated. The proposal follows meetings with the Columbia Transit Task Force and the owners of Brookside Apartment complexes.

McDavid said if the proposal is approved, Jonathan and Nathan Odle, owners of Brookside, have agreed to spend $80,000 on passes for residents for the route.

In addition, the FastCAT route would offer the group rate of $62.50 per resident per semester to all apartment complexes in the area.

The Columbia City Council has not yet approved the proposal. Councilmen Fred Schmidt and Gary Kespohl, of the First and Third Ward respectively, as well as City Manager Mike Matthes, have been involved in the meetings with the Odles.

McDavid said he wants the route in operation before MU students return in mid-August for the fall semester.

“That’s only two months away,” McDavid said. “So we’ve got to move fast.”

The route is meant to make the bus system more rider-friendly for residents near MU by creating a quick and efficient route around the "economic center of Columbia," McDavid said.

If approved, the route would include GPS-enabled buses that riders could follow with a free app telling them the estimated time of arrival for each stop.

The mayor aims to create a financially stable route by expanding student ridership significantly. The finances for the current transit system are unsustainable, he said.

The transit system currently has $7.2 million in expenses each year. Grants and tax subsidies cover $3.9 million and fares cover an additional $1.7 million. That leaves $1.5 million in losses per year, according to records from the mayor’s office.

McDavid said if 2,000 students purchase a pass for the proposed bus route, it would make $300,000 in revenue, his goal for the first year.

“If we can make this part of the system financially stable, the rest of the revenue can help the other parts,” McDavid said.

The route spans from Walnut Street to the Virginia Avenue Parking Garage, with stops at popular locations such as Shakespeare’s Pizza, the MU Bookstore and Greektown. McDavid said the total student population within one block of the route during the school year is 8,500.

This proposal has received criticism for being too student-centric. McDavid, however, said it is important to use the mindset that students are customers.

“If we can get revenue into the system by serving this broad group of customers, we will need more buses,” McDavid said. “We will need a broader bus system. We’ll have far more robust, financially sound buses.”

The bus route, which passes through campus, would not pose any expense or fee for the university. McDavid said a student fee is not an option.

“They are customers,” McDavid said. “They will either choose to pay for the service or not.”

The bus route would be comparable to systems in other college towns such as Ames, Iowa, and Champaign-Urbana, Ill., which see significantly more riders than Columbia.

Ames currently has 100 bus rides per capita each year. Columbia has 20 rides per capita, including rides given to MU students from parking lots to the MU Student Center through a contract with the university. Without those riders, McDavid said, the number is closer to 10 rides per capita.

The city’s Try Transit Day on May 17 broke the one-day ridership record with close to 3,500 riders but fell short of the 5,000-rider goal.

McDavid said to reach the numbers in Ames, the bus system would need 40,000 to 50,000 riders per day during the school year.

Brookside agreement

In addition to the $80,000 Brookside would spend on resident passes, the Odles would spend $10,000 to advertise on the buses.

McDavid said the Odles have also agreed to cancel the shuttle system they planned to add to the apartment complex under construction at College Avenue and Walnut Street.

The new Brookside apartments being built at College Avenue and Walnut Street have raised concerns from the North Central Columbia Neighborhood Association, but McDavid said the owners have the right to do whatever they like with the land.

“Let’s leverage what they’re going to do for the benefit of Columbia,” McDavid said.

McDavid said there is a difference between where the city’s public transportation system is now and where it can be. He said the goal is 10 million rides per year in Columbia.

Supervising editor is Dan Burley.

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Richard Saunders May 24, 2012 | 6:27 p.m.

Ten million. Now there's a nice political number. Let's do some math, and see how it looks in detail.

First, lets look at it using current numbers. Buses run 6 days a week (312 days per year) for a total of 75 hours a week, with an average of 12.5 hours per day.

So, dividing 10M by 312 gives us 32,051 rides per day. Dividing that by 12.5 gives us 2564 rides per hour. I don't know what the average capacity of a city bus is, but I'll use 80 as an estimate. With these numbers, this goal comes out to 32 buses filled with 80 people on the road in any given hour, for each and every hour they are in operation.

Now, I'm sure this goal includes both expanded hours, as well as routes, but does anyone seriously expect a ridership anywhere near this goal? Even if you expanded service to 24/7 (which is in no way is affordable) you still have to have on average, 75 riders each and every hour of the year.

This reminds me of the time when I did the same math for the Youzeum and "discovered" their projection was for 200 people visiting each and every hour it was open. A wholly laughable concept, as their average was closer to 2 than it was 200.

Just like I predicted then, I can say with absolute certainty, that these numbers will never materialize. And if for some reason they do (like say, massive impoverishment of society due to government spending (of all things)), I guarantee you nobody will want to be anywhere near downtown Columbia, as it will have been destoyed.

Creating more have-nots merely so you can have the opportunity to provide them with services they can no longer afford is never a winning plan. What it is, is economic enslavement. Like it or not, we live in a world of scarcity. Government likes to pretend they provide cost-effective services. The truth is though, they can't even get past the math.

So they pitch pie-in-the-sky political boondoggles instead, in order to appear "responsible." (another wholly laughable concept)

(Report Comment)
Laura Johnston May 25, 2012 | 9:59 a.m.

@Richard: Thanks for your comment. We are doing some follow-up coverage on this issue and ridership numbers are part of that.
If you have other questions or suggestions for our coverage, please leave them below.

Laura Johnston, interactive news editor

(Report Comment)
Tracy Greever-Rice May 25, 2012 | 10:27 a.m.

While you're at it, Laura, I'm curious to know:

* How many years the Odle's are committing to supporting this service?
* Will the Odle's subsidy be extended to their 10th street private dormitories (and any other private dormitories they build downtown)?
* If they add additional dorms, will their subsidy increase?
* While this service may reduce traffic between these private dorms and campus', how will this service reduce the need for students to have cars in order to buy staples and go to work?
* Who have the Odles been contracting with to date (including for the coming fall) to provide shuttle service? * If the shuttle service contract(s) was with a public entity, how much was the contract?
* Can someone please ask the 1st ward councilman why he participated in this negotiation without even notifying, much including the input of, his constituents - both the North Central Columbia Neighborhood Association and the immediate neighbors to the development?
* Is it true that anyone can do anything they want with their property? I thought we were constrained by zoning code and other city ordinance as well as state and federal law. I want to make sure the Mayor is correct before I install my roller coaster.

It would surely help us all understand the nature and intent of this agreement, if we had answers to these questions.

Many thanks.

(Report Comment)
Joy Mayer May 25, 2012 | 11:41 a.m.

Tracy, thanks — our reporters are reading over your questions now.

This story is part of our ongoing coverage of transit issues, and we'll take all the questions and ideas the community wants to throw our way.

One of the lines of questioning we're pursuing is how this route compares to what has worked in the towns city official visited earlier this year. You can see that coverage here:

Joy Mayer
Director of community outreach
Columbia Missourian

(Report Comment)
Louis Schneebaum May 25, 2012 | 4:24 p.m.

This bus service is pretty lame. I am an auto owner who chooses to walk and ride to campus, four seasons, rain or shine. This service is handling areas that are easily walkable on any given day.

Service to the "10th street private dormitories"?

What's the point? They are 2-3 blocks from campus.

Every decision that this city makes in regard to bus-based transit is proof-positive that whoever is calling the shots is way out of touch. Here's a wild idea -- pretend that you're working an $8 to $12/hr job and see if you can get from where you live in the city to where you work, return home, and do errands in a reasonably efficient way. Yes 'suit', go out and live it, otherwise you are pure BS. Touring other college towns is a joke, but I'm sure the per diem lunches and asinine meetings were wonderful.

(Report Comment)

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