Revamping bus system hits home for those who need it most

Monday, November 18, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:49 a.m. CST, Thursday, November 21, 2013
In order to better accommodate city residents, Columbia Transit has proposed a redesigned bus system called CoMo Connect that would add routes, decrease wait times and eliminate Wabash Station as the system's sole hub.

*CORRECTION: Drew Brooks works for Columbia Transit. A previous version of this story incorrectly identified him. 

COLUMBIA — Luis Rodriguez arrived hot and sweaty to his job interview with Columbia Public Schools this summer. His shirt was spotted with sweat and determined drops of perspiration made their way from his forehead down the curve of his face. It was clear he didn’t ride to the interview in a vehicle with air conditioning. Instead, Rodriguez walked in 95-degree weather because the city bus was late.

CoMo Connect

The CoMO Connect plan can be viewed here. Specific changes addressed by the project include the following:

  • Service hours expanded to 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and Saturdays 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.
  • New routes will include two connector routes and seven neighborhood routes
  • 35 bus transfer points throughout the city
  • Wait times decreased from 40 minutes to 15 to 30 minutes
  • Construction of additional shelters at bus stops

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After arriving to his interview, the first thing Rodriguez did was apologize for his appearance as the sweat formed more beads on his forehead. The neatly dressed woman interviewing him said she understood, but he knew looking disheveled didn't make a great first impression. It also didn't help his chances of getting the job as a maintenance man. 

Rodriguez, 55, moved from New York City to Columbia two years ago. He relies exclusively on public transit to get him where he needs to be on a given day. He rides city buses to work, the library, post office, doctors' appointments and to shop for groceries.

Columbia’s bus system presents a challenge for Rodriguez and other people who ride throughout the week. As his only source of transportation, the system dictates the jobs he is able to work and the way he plans out his day.

To make transportation easier for Rodriguez and others who rely on the bus system, Columbia Transit proposed a redesigned bus system called CoMO Connect. The plan would add routes, decrease wait times, eliminate the Wabash Station as the bus system's only hub and expand hours of operation.

The Columbia City Council will vote in February on the plan after a series of public meetings. With approval, changes would take effect in August. In the future, Columbia Transit could make additional changes beyond CoMO Connect to expand hours of bus service.

In more than one job interview in the past, including the one he walked to, Rodriguez did not receive an offer because he relies on the bus to get him to work each morning and it can be unreliable. He doesn’t own a car and it works against him, especially if a job requires him to work hours outside the typical 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Rodriguez said.

“That’s the main problem we have here with it being such a metropolitan area,” Rodriguez said. “If you work a swing shift and you can’t get to work, you can’t take that job.”

Though owning a car would solve the problem of reliable transportation for Rodriguez, he doesn’t plan on purchasing one because he can’t afford it. The jobs he’s able to accept since he rides the bus don’t pay him enough to be able to save up money for a vehicle, he said.

“You have to have the job first before you can get the car,” Rodriguez said. “You’ve got to have the money first.”

Current bus system

City buses operate from 6:20 a.m. to 6:35 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 6:30 a.m. to 9:15 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 10:05 a.m. to 7:15 p.m. on Saturdays. There is no service on Sundays.

All buses depart from the Wabash Station downtown on Tenth Street and return there after completing their route. Wait times are scheduled at 40 minutes, but depending on the traffic at a given time of day, particularly Thursday and Friday afternoons, they can stretch to an hour or more.

"You can almost count on the buses being at least 10 to 15 minutes late in the afternoon," said Donna Jeffers, who qualifies for half-fare and does not own a car. "It's inconvenient if you have to be somewhere at a certain time because you either have to plan to arrive really early or if your bus is even five minutes late, you'll be late to your appointment."

When a $1.50 bus ticket is purchased, each rider is guaranteed one free transfer, meaning they can ride and transfer to a second bus without purchasing a new ticket. The current transfer system means riders have a 40-minute window between being dropped off by one bus and being picked up by another before their transfer expires.

“Everything depends on the bus schedule,” Rodriguez said. “You try to do as much as you can with one ticket — pay your rent, go to the library, take care of all your business before your transfer expires.”

If Rodriguez gets stuck at a doctor’s appointment or in the grocery store line and misses his second bus, he has to buy a new ticket. The new ticket costs him an additional 75 cents for half-fare.

Candace Hawkins rides the bus to her job at Atkins Cleaning each afternoon Monday through Friday. She takes a cab home when she gets off work at 10 p.m. because buses have stopped running. On Sundays, when the buses aren’t in service, Hawkins relies on friends to get to work.

Hawkins pays a cab driver $4.50 to drive her home. If a bus were available, the ticket would cost 75 cents since she qualifies for half-fare because of her low income. Cab fare adds up and has become a financial burden for her, she said.

“For the size of the population the city has, it does not accommodate the population well,” Hawkins said. “If you’re trying to get to work, there’s no service on Sundays, and on Saturdays the buses don’t start until 10 a.m. and you must depart at the station."

Hawkins moved from Kansas City to live closer to her daughter who attends Moberly Area Community College. She plans to move back to Kansas City as soon as possible, though, because she can’t make the bus schedule fit her work schedule.

"For a city this size that supports three colleges, it’s just not feasible.”

Columbia Transit staff are painfully aware of the challenges bus riders encounter every day, said *Drew Brooks of Columbia Transit.

The U.S. Census Bureau put the city’s population at 113,225 in 2012. A growing population and the spread of suburbs has caused the bus system to become inefficient.

“Basically, we have a system that was designed for a town that doesn’t exist anymore,” Brooks said. “We’re trying to repair and prepare the system. What we want to do is improve the system so that more people have a choice to ride.”

CoMO Connect

CoMO Connect was proposed by Columbia Transit staff and so far has received support from the city council, Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas said.

Columbia Transit will continue presenting the project at public meetings in the next two months and invite feedback from the public about the proposed changes to the bus system. Upcoming meetings will be at 6 p.m. Thursday at Oakland Middle School and 6 p.m. Dec. 12 at Daniel Boone City Building.

For Rodriguez and others who rely on city buses, a new system like CoMO Connect would mean better chances of on-time arrival to work and other important appointments, more efficient routes and shorter wait times.

The City Council in October increased parking fees $10 per month in city-owned garages and parking lots. The increase will provide about $300,000 for the bus system, Thomas said. The funds generated from the increase will be matched by a $300,000 federal grant and be enough to pay for the CoMO Connect project.

People who pay for spaces in city-owned lots and garages will receive a free bus pass for unlimited rides to encourage riding public transportation as an alternative to parking in the lots and garages.

At previous meetings, public opinion of CoMO Connect has generally been positive, Brooks said. Columbia Transit staff have already taken some public feedback from the meetings and through online surveys and made some minor changes to proposed routes.

Questions remain, however, about why Sunday service and extended hours of operation later into the evenings are not addressed in CoMO Connect. Brooks said adding hours to the bus schedule would require more money.

Changes beyond CoMO Connect

The city has its sights set on expanding bus system hours of operation beyond CoMO Connect in the future, Brooks said.

The leading request of bus riders is more hours of operation by extending bus services later into the evening and decreasing wait times, Brooks said. Some riders also want Sunday service.

"If you have a population that can't do anything after 8 p.m., that's a missed opportunity for the customer and the business community because you can't frequent a business if you can't get there," Brooks said. Expanded hours would generate revenue for businesses like grocery stores and restaurants that are typically open later than 8 p.m., he said.

Adding more hours Monday through Saturday would require hiring more drivers, while decreasing wait times or adding Sunday service would require more buses. Purchasing additional buses would cost more than hiring drivers, Brooks said.

Columbia Transit is considering options to increase funding and avoid service cuts. It adminstered a survey in April to see which funding option Columbia residents would support. The survey was answered by 456 people. Some respondents supported multiple options. Graphic by Amanda Sohaney

One funding option for additional expansion is a transportation utility fee. A study published in August by the City Council's Board of Health reviewed the impacts a utility fee would have on lower-income households.

Based on figures in the report, a transportation fee would add $2 or $4 a month to residential utility bills. People living in single-family homes would pay $4 and those in multi-family homes would pay $2 each month, according to the study.

Commercial properties would be charged monthly based on the property’s size. A specific breakdown of fee rates can be viewed in the full report.

The fee would generate approximately $3.7 million to be used to help expand hours of operation beyond CoMO Connect, potentially adding Sunday service and further decreasing wait times.

Columbia Transit is considering adding an extra fee on Columbia residents’ utility bills to help fund public transportation. It is proposing a $4 monthly fee on single-family homes and a $2 monthly fee on multi-family homes, in addition to a fee based on size for commercial properties. Graphic by Amanda Sohaney

“This is one of a long list of possible funding mechanisms that could be used to fund transit and allow us to expand transit services over the next few years,” Thomas said.

Other options for funding include an increase in sales or property taxes, Thomas said. The City Council has not determined which option they will move forward with in the future.

Negative effects of a utility fee

About 25 percent to 30 percent of riders who are not college students qualify for half-fare, Brooks said. Half-fare recipients fall into one of the following categories: they are either disabled, elderly, a Medicaid or Medicare recipient, low-income or between the ages of 5 and 17 years old. Half-fare costs 75 cents per ride or $25 for a monthly pass.

Columbia Transit administered a survey in April to assess its ridership. Out of 455 people, 102 responded that they qualified for half-fare on Columbia public transportation. Of the six half-fare qualifications, meeting the low-income requirement was the most common. In the survey, respondents could select more than one option. Graphic by Amanda Sohaney

A transportation utility fee would hit hardest people living on a low or fixed income, but the same group stands to gain the most from bus system improvements.

The fee could impose more stress to already limited food budgets, housing stability and overall stress to families living on a low or fixed income, the study found.

“What this study didn’t look at are the trade-offs that might benefit some of these same folks,” Brooks said. “If you could get rid of a car, that’s a trade-off. If you could get a better job, that’s a trade-off.”

A waiver or reduction in the amount of the fee may be available for low or fixed-income riders to alleviate the stress the fee may cause. If the fee could be reduced or eliminated for people living on a low income and bus services could be expanded, that would be a net positive result, Thomas said.

Columbia Transit is considering adding an extra $2 to $4 fee on Columbia residents’ utility bills. It administered a survey in April to assess the effects the fee would have on residents. Nearly half of the 456 respondents reported they would be affected to some degree. Graphic by Amanda Sohaney

With data presented in the report and the changes addressed in the CoMO Connect plan, the City Council will determine if the benefits of expanded bus services beyond those proposed in CoMO Connect outweigh the financial burden it poses to people living on low and fixed incomes.

Supervising editor is John Schneller.

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Skip Yates November 18, 2013 | 2:43 p.m.

If you get enough funding from various sources, driving a bus with 3 passengers on it is profitable....thing is, someone else is paying the fee,and that is just another "taxpayer" initiative invented in Columbia to make something appear viable, and get a green energy certificate from someone to hang on the mayor's office bulkhead... And, what about that group of folks that went to DeMoine, IA, a couple of years back to improve our bus service? Wasn't that not just another bus service boondoggle?

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith November 18, 2013 | 5:41 p.m.


Actually, I believe the trip was to Ames, Iowa (the airport would have been Des Moines). Ames is Iowa State University, and the bus service is called "CyRide" and has been a great success.

At some point while I was living in Columbia the city hired the then manager of CyRide to run the bus service in Columbia. He resigned (the word is that he'd "had it" with the Columbia administration). The last I heard about him was that he was running bus service in Iowa City, which is the home of University of Iowa.

Maybe he will eventually take over bus service for metro Waterloo-Cedar Falls (University of Northern Iowa), in which case he will have completed the equivalent of an ice hockey "hat trick," as there ARE only three public universities in the state of Iowa. :)

Interestingly, and I pointed this out when the Ames, Iowa trip was made, conditions at Iowa City (proximity of the campus to downtown and to outlying residential areas) are far closer to those in Columbia than those in Ames. Traffic congestion in Iowa City is worse than in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids (Iowa's second largest city), Ames or Columbia.

The city where I now live is one of the incorporated suburbs surrounding Des Moines. The metro bus service, DART (Des Moines Area Rapid Transit), is very good. Here we have one of the largest (enrollment) public junior colleges in the United States.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith November 19, 2013 | 7:38 a.m.

PS: The trip you (Skip) refer to (Ames, Iowa) followed a trip to Lawrence, Kansas to study public transportation there. (I seem to recall that after the Ames trip there was another trip somewhere, but I don't recall where that was.)

Some of us affiliated with either (or both) UMKC and MS&T were frankly astounded at the idea of folks from Columbia, Missouri going to Lawrence, Kansas in order to study anything! The arch enemy? Those terrible Jayhawks! LOL

Maybe someday you'll even travel to Kansas City (UMKC), St. Louis (UMSL), and even to deepest, darkest Rolla (MS&T) to find out what's happening there.

(Perhaps we'll be pardoned if we don't hold our collective breaths while waiting.)

(Report Comment)

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