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COLUMBIA — Columbia officials are looking to increase ridership on the city's public transit system with a proposed bus route catering to students.
Individual pass: $100/semester
Groups less than 30: $75/semester
Groups between 30 and 1,000: $62.50/semester
Groups greater than 1,000: $50/semester
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.”
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.
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.
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