Forum bus service will have to wait

Thursday, November 15, 2007 | 8:26 p.m. CST; updated 2:07 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — With gas prices rising, public transportation is beginning to look like a more attractive option for increasing numbers of Columbia residents. But folks living along Forum Boulevard will have to wait awhile for city bus service.

Budget constraints make new service to the Forum Boulevard area infeasible for now, city staff said in an Oct. 26 report to the Columbia City Council. Creating a route to serve the area would require two more buses, either new or used, as well as additional staff and passenger amenities.

Two new buses would cost $658,000, while two used ones would cost $140,000. While used buses would cost less as a one-time expense, these would need to be replaced within two to three years, and maintenance expenses could be higher overall, according to the staff report. Amenities such as bus stop signs, shelters and benches would cost $25,000. Annual operating expenses, including fuel, maintenance, and driver salary, would cost an estimated $65,000 per year.

Because there is no state or federal money to cover those expenses, the city would have to do so.

Jill Stedem, a spokeswoman for the Public Works Department, said providing bus service to the Forum Boulevard area is not in the immediate plan.

“Right now this is a citizen request we’ve been asked to address.”

Because no federal money for the city’s bus system was available for 2007, the purchase of four buses has already been delayed to 2008. The city is requesting federal assistance to buy 12 replacement vehicles in 2008, at a total cost of $3.12 million. That doesn’t include the extra buses that service to Forum would require.

Budgeting, however, is exactly what’s on the minds of Forum-area residents. Susan Clark of the Bedford Walk Neighborhood Association said the demand for public transportation service could be growing.

“If gas prices keep rising the way that they are, I think it’s going to become less and less affordable for people to drive individual vehicles.”

Clark said that the neighborhood association discussed the issue at a recent meeting and felt it would useful to extend bus service on Nifong from Bethel west to Forum.

“We understand the city’s problem with getting enough riders to make it worthwhile,” Clark said. “I mean sometimes you see these buses driving around, and there’s only a few people on them. But we expect a lot more people would be interested in using the bus service if it was out there, especially with the increase in gas prices.”

City officials say a Forum route would also would create time constraints, adding 3.5 miles and 10 to 15 minutes per circuit to what is now a 40-minute route. To keep all routes in synch, the city would have to add 15 minutes to every route. That, the report said, would “decrease ... service to current city-wide passengers.”

A commuter route serving the area is already included in the second phase of the Columbia Transit Master Plan, meaning it should happen within two to six years. That plan, however, remains subject to City Council approval.

Commuter routes run only at certain times of year or certain times of day. The existing Gold Route, for example, runs only when MU is in session while the Yellow Route runs only in the morning and evening. A commuter service for southwest Columbia that connects with the Orange South route might be possible.

“We’re looking at adding more commuter routes and a parking lot in various areas of town,” Stedem said.

Clark said bus service would be useful to more than just homeowners.

“There’s not a lot of low-income housing out in the Bedford Walk area, but there are a lot of apartment complexes out there, so it might be useful for them.”

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