Columbia fee to expand bus service would hit poor the hardest, report finds

Sunday, September 15, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:12 a.m. CDT, Friday, October 4, 2013

*A previous version of this story misstated the title of Lisa Goldschmidt.

COLUMBIA — One of the city's funding options for expanding Columbia Transit would disproportionately affect Columbia's poorest, according to a report presented to the Board of Health at Thursday's meeting.

Columbia City Council members began considering a variety of funding options in January 2013 to pay for an expansion of the bus system over the next year including a program called CoMO Connect. Options for funding include a $10-per-month fee increase in city-owned parking lots and garages and a potential transportation utility fee.

The study assessing the effects of a utility fee, which would add a $2 to $4 fee to private residents’ and commercial properties' monthly utility bills, was conducted between February and May 2013. The report’s findings were published in August and presented to the council Aug. 19.

The assessment was the second conducted by the Health Department in partnership with the PedNet Coalition and Central Missouri Community Action to evaluate Columbia Transit since 2011. The first report determined the bus system needs extended hours of operation, improved routes and shorter wait times — all of which would benefit community health.

The study found that the fee would have negative effects on low- and fixed-income households by constraining disposable income. The possible negative effects of a fee for bus service, according to the study, are: 

  • Limit the ability for some households to pay for stable and affordable housing.
  • Less health care access and use.
  • Increase physical and mental stress for people already living on a limited income.
  • Increase the level of food insecurity, defined by the Department of Agriculture as the inability to afford enough food for an active and healthy life.

The entire report can be downloaded here.

“The added expenses would disproportionately burden low- or fixed-income households,” said Lisa Goldschmidt, CoMET (Columbians for Modern, Efficient Transit) coordinator*.

The proposed utility fee would generate a projected $3.7 million annually and add 3,500 hours of operation to the bus system, said Jason Wilcox of the Department of Public Health and Human Services.

The study recommended the 3,500 hours be used to add eight hours of bus services on Sundays or to increase service hours on weekdays. Buses currently do not run on Sunday. The weekday option would be more expensive but could cut wait times from 40 to 20 minutes during peak riding hours.

The study concluded with a series of recommendations as the city moves forward with identifying funding for the CoMO Connect project. They include:

  • Create consistent weekly routes and schedules and ensure Columbia Transit’s website is easily navigable.
  • Expand outreach to the public about how cost-efficient and convenient riding the bus can be.
  • Research funding alternatives.
  • Invite public comment on alternative funding options.
  • Alter Columbia Transit’s operational hours to accommodate hourly workers.
  • Consider a reduction or waiver of the fee for low- or fixed-income riders if the utility fee is chosen as a funding option.
  • Consider adding bus services on Sundays.
  • Locate bus stops by frequently visited sites such as grocery stores, health care facilities and Columbia Public Library.

“We have the recommendations in the report because we think they reflect the findings of the report,” Scott Clardy, assistant director for the Health Department, said. “We believe the findings are accurate as far as health impact, but we also understand that the council takes more into account than just health impacts when making their decisions.”

The study’s outcome will be presented at additional city meetings in the next six months before the council reaches a decision about funding.

“I think this should definitely be in the mix,” Ian Thomas, Fourth Ward city councilman, said. “There are a number of ideas to increase the transit budget, and the transportation utility fee is just one of them.”

Supervising editor is John Schneller.

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