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Columbia Missourian

Fifth Ward council candidates seeking solutions for Columbia Transit

By John Farmer de la Torre
January 30, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST

COLUMBIA – Solutions to the challenges facing the city's bus system are as elusive for the Fifth Ward City Council candidates as they have been for city officials over the past several years.

Susan "Tootie" Burns, Mark Jones and Laura Nauser are competing in Tuesday's Feb. 5 special election for the seat left open by Helen Anthony's resignation in November.

The candidates said they are committed to making the city's bus system financially viable and useful for all residents, and they agreed that convenience and affordability are key factors. They also agreed that no simple solutions exist for the financial problems the bus system faces.

Creating a viable bus system

Columbia has struggled for years to develop a public transportation system that is convenient and affordable. The system enjoys public support — the city subsidizes it with revenue from its transportation sales tax — but a solution that will make it financially sustainable has not been engineered.

The council and city officials over the past couple of years have taken some steps toward reducing the red ink flowing out of the bus system. It has raised fares, renegotiated contracts with student apartment complexes and made some slight reductions in service. And Mayor Bob McDavid led the charge to establish the downtown FastCAT route, which is primarily intended to serve residents of student apartments. Thus far, FastCAT is losing money, but officials hope that will change with time.

FastCAT was implemented after representatives of the city and MU made three fact-finding trips last year in an effort to learn how other communities had established successful bus systems. The delegation traveled to Champaign-Urbana, Ill., Ames, Iowa, and Lawrence, Kan., to see best practices at work. The communities are home to the University of Illinois, Iowa State University and the University of Kansas, respectively.

The three cities' bus systems offered several lessons; all three were funded to a significant degree by student fees, and each feature a lot of collaboration between the city and the university.

Of the three cities, Columbia officials said they were most impressed by Ames' bus system, which offered more schedules and convenience at an affordable price. Ames is smaller than Columbia, with a population of about 60,000, but its bus system carries 106 rides per capita versus Columbia's 20, according to previous Missourian reporting. 

Burns: Convenience is key to bus system's solvency

Burns said she wants the bus system to be successful, especially given the large numbers of students who are moving into new apartments downtown. She believes the system can be made solvent if it is "convenient, affordable and attractive."

The main obstacle, Burns said, is Columbia's car culture. "People like their cars, but parking is expensive."

Burns cited Champaign-Urbana as a role model; residents there have grown accustomed to riding buses rather than driving cars, she said.

Burns also mentioned Austin, Texas, and Madison, Wis., as college towns that consistently rate as top places to live and have successful bus systems. "So they're making it work: the combination of being a college town, and making their full-time residents happy also." Burns said her goal is to do the same in Columbia.

Burns said ridership could grow as residents become more comfortable with the system and recognize that they can save money on gasoline and parking. FastCAT might help accomplish that, she said.

"The buses are clean, and the drivers are friendly."

Jones: Customized solution is necessary

Jones said any community that enjoys a high standard of living should have a transportation infrastructure that serves everyone, whether retirees who come to Columbia because of the health care it offers or students who come for a college education.

Jones said creating a viable bus system is one of the most difficult problems facing the council.

"The consensus is that the schedule is better, but it's still not working," Jones said. "We should look at changing the hours to when people are on the move."

Jones said FastCat has improved and that some recent innovations such as GPS tracking are useful. Still, he said, the bus system has yet to reach its potential.

Jones said the success of taxi companies demonstrates that a need for public transportation exists and that people are choosing the most expensive form out there.

"We have gaps in our public transportation system. We need to find out why the public transportation system isn't fixing that need?"

Jones suggested the city further explore collaboration with MU and perhaps with Columbia Public Schools. 

"The truth is I don't know that there is an elegant solution," Jones said. "We can look at other communities and model after them the best we can, but we are going to have to find a customized solution for Columbia."

Nauser: Says she is open to suggestions 

Nauser supports the bus system but said the council has struggled for years to solve the problem of how to make the system solvent and more useful.

"Your local government is supposed to represent what the people of your community want," Nauser said. "Our community wants the bus, then that is something that the city government should work to provide."

Nauser said the city's car culture is at the root of the problem. "We are still kind of a small town where we drive everywhere."

Although the council often tweaks bus routes and schedules at budget time, Nauser conceded it has never found a solution.

"It comes down to money. Those buses aren't cheap, and there is a breaking point on everything."

Nauser said it is the council's responsibility to ask city staff for reports that address and solve the most challenging problems. She said she's keeping an open mind on suggestions for the bus system. Even depriving students of downtown parking might be a good way to entice them to ride the bus, she acknowledged.

"I would be open to all suggestions to make something viable," Nauser said. 

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.