City Council candidates discuss Columbia bus system

Tuesday, March 26, 2013 | 12:00 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Missourian reporters asked candidates for seats on the Columbia City Council nine standardized questions about city government issues. Here are their verbatim answers to a question about the Columbia bus system. 

City officials continue striving to find ways to improve Columbia Transit and to make the service more financially viable. What are your specific ideas for how to accomplish those goals?

Mayoral candidates

Bob McDavid: "We’re in the middle of a restructuring that — you know, I've started the FastCat loop. We now have funding for that from the public. We have Brookside students engaged in it, we have Stephens College on board with it. We’re going to press the Green and the Black and Gold route, that one that goes out to Grindstone, the apartments. We want to get all those apartments on board. And my central premise is every bit of funding we get from those routes is funding that we can defer into the core legacy routes in the the city, the ones that serve those who are either in the low-income group or disability group, those who actually need the service, or it’s not an option. So it’s about new revenue sources, it’s about moving subsidies to core routes."

Sid Sullivan: "I think that's a work in progress. We really need to do the market study in terms of how we're organizing our transit system and how we're paying for it. The university has been reluctant to add additional student fees so that while we are providing transit services for many of the students, we're not able to pay for that. So we need to really put together an entire package of how we're going to market our current system and how we're going to attract the riders. I don't have a definite position on that. The city did hire a marketing director to research that, look at the way other cities do it, and we need to put together that financial package as well as provide the transit for local citizens as well as students for our transit system."

Third Ward candidates

Karl Skala: "Well, there are two ideas, actually, that I brought back from the New Partners for Smart Growth meeting a few weeks ago in Kansas City. There was a dedicated transit track to the conference, and several members of the city administration, department heads, in fact, (Public Works Director) John Glasscock and a few others attended that meeting. In all successful transit systems that I’m aware of, and the ones that were presented, there’s a multi-sized fleet, diversity of size in terms of fleet. I think we can use that concept to increase the service with smaller buses on those routes that suggest that that kind of demand is necessary to accommodate that ridership and use the large buses for those routes that accommodate that kind of ridership. So that’s one of the issues, and it has to do with changing the fleet. The other is there ought to be an emphasis on increasing the service hours to longer in the day and perhaps on the weekends. Those two things would go a long way, I think, in helping to increase ridership. And then, of course, there is always the idea about paying for all of this, and I have a rather comprehensive approach to user-based fees to pay for infrastructure in general, and the bus system is that kind of transit infrastructure that could also be appropriate for that user-based fee rather than a geographic fee, which is what we do now."

Gary Kespohl: "I've been studying transit, and I haven't reached any conclusions yet. I think I would like to expand transit, but at the same time I'd like to make it financially sustainable. And until I study the routes and study the ridership, which I'm getting ready to do, I can't even answer that question. But I think we have a $1.6 million transportation tax that subsidizes transit. (We've) got a $1.2 million federal subsidy that subsidizes transit. The city is putting in an additional $1.4 (million) in addition to the fees we charge for transit to the riders. So we have to somehow make up that $1.4 million. We cut it down to $800,000 last year by increasing fares and shortening a couple of routes. So we just have to figure out what routes we really need, what routes are not used and make adjustments."

Fourth Ward candidates

Daryl Dudley: "Specific ideas is kind of constraining in my answer. The ideas that  what we have to do, concise, is we need to get more people on the buses. How do you get more people on the buses is to have more buses. The buses have to be running on time; they have to go where people want to go. They have to be easy to get onto and easy to get off of. They have to easy access from wherever it is that you want to go. Some people are going to have to walk, but the distance shouldn’t be so great that people will not do it. The towns we compare ourselves to, Ames and Champaign, have buses everywhere. They’ve also been doing this a lot longer than we have. To get people on the buses the way that they need to be on the buses is not going to happen overnight, or in a year. It’s going to take some time, short strides, and we will eventually get there. It’s an uphill battle because we have to change an entire culture of the community, and that’s going to take a while, but we have to get there in time. It takes people off the streets in their cars, and it helps cut down on energy and pollution."

Ian Thomas: "We need to bring in a consultant who has experience in similar college towns, such as Champaign-Urbana, Ill., Ames, Iowa, Lawrence, Kan., to assess our current bus system, assess public support for the bus system in a systematic way, which I know is extremely strong from my work with PedNet and the COMET campaign. It’s not just the people who currently ride the bus (who) want to see the bus system improved. There are a lot of people who currently drive for a lot of their journeys (who) want to see the bus system improved because they want to have that choice. And then the people who would never use the bus system would also benefit from an improved bus system because there’ll be less traffic congestion. So we need a plan not just to expand the bus system from the technical point of view but from the political point of view to build the funding for it. And there will be enormous savings in road construction and widening."

Bill Weitkemper: "Well, one thing they can do is hire a professional manager. The manager’s position has been open since Dec. 1. And they need to hire a manager who’s got experience in running a transit system. And again, the mayor needs to stay out of that, too. It’s just not his position to run the airport or the transit system. I don’t know if it would be ever profitable. And I’m sure know it won’t ever be profitable. But it needs to be explored, running the buses where people with their only means of transportation is the bus have access to it. You know, low-income, disabled people need the buses more than students."

Missourian reporters Hannah Cushman, Elizabeth Pearl, Tony Puricelli, Madeline O'Leary, Chris Jasper, Allison Prang and Nuria Mathog contributed to this report.

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

To hear audio clips from the candidates, go to the Missourian's local government blog, The Watchword.

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