COLUMBIA — The number of passengers using the COMO Connect bus system has continued to decline since the city introduced the revamped service in 2013. On Monday night, a consultant presented four options to the Columbia City Council for how to overhaul the system again.
Of the 11 bus routes that COMO Connect operates, just two — the Black and Gold routes — comprise 70 percent of the passengers who use the transit system. The other nine routes carry 1 to 6 percent of the bus system's total passengers. Olsson Associates, which was hired by the city in early 2016, is recommending major changes to address that disparity.
Olsson Associates began its work by administering surveys at public meetings and online. Over 70 local residents completed the surveys in person, and another 392 did so online.
Here are some of the highlights of the results:
- Residents want riding the bus to be just as convenient, if not more, than driving or walking.
- Residents hope that all stops are safe and that drivers be professional and safe.
- Residents want bus and paratransit service to be fully accessible to everyone.
- Most residents want service to be available within a quarter-mile of their home and work.
The consultant's evaluation also examined ridership data for each route to determine what changes the city might want to make.
The COMO Connect system features a loop system with two major connector routes, the Black Route that runs primarily north and south and the Gold Route that runs primarily east and west. The nine smaller loop routes connect with different neighborhoods around the city.
Annual operating costs for the two connector routes are over $900,000 each, while the cost of the neighborhood routes range from a low of $34,962 for the Aqua Route to a high of $330,589 for the Red Route.
There are huge differences in the number of passengers on the routes, though. On an average busy hour during a weekday, for example, 25 passengers are riding the Black Route while fewer than 10 are riding on any of the neighborhood routes. On the Dark Green Route that serves southwest Columbia, an average of only 4.4 passengers use the service during peak hours, according to the evaluation.
Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas lives in the area served by the Dark Green Route. He recalled a time when the bus he was riding was almost empty, other than he and the driver.
"Oh, that Dark Green is a lonely road," Thomas quipped to laughter in the room. "It's just dosen't make sense to run that bus around 20 times a day."
Tom Worker-Braddock, who presented the Olsson Associates report to the council on Monday, offered four options for changing the system and detailed how the routes would change, when and how often the buses would run and how much each alternative would cost.
One of the major changes proposed in three of the options is to replace rarely ridden neighborhood routes with so-called flex zones, where no scheduled buses would run but where residents could call in advance to have a bus come pick them up at a specific time and either take them to their destination or get them to a fixed bus route that would get them where they want to go.
Mayor Brian Treece worried that flex routes would increase the cost per ride.
Worker-Braddock acknowledged it would be more expensive for a single ride but said flex zones are a “common tool” that other cities use to serve neighborhoods with little demand for regular bus service. The consultant's report said Des Moines, Iowa, and Kansas City, Lee's Summit and Raymore already use them.
He also suggested the money saved by eliminating the operating costs for rarely used routes could make up for the increased cost per ride and be used to improve service on the more important routes.
Data on passengers' request for the flex-zone services would also be collected to determine whether routes should be changed, Worker-Braddock said.
Each of the four options also would modify routes running through MU. Worker-Braddock said Olsson Associates found that dense pedestrian traffic along the existing routes during busy hours tend to hinder the buses and make it difficult for them to remain on time.
Here is a look at the four alternatives.
Option A: Modify loop routes, add flex routes
Scenario A would revise COMO Connect's loop routes and create flex zones in parts of west, southwest, north and east Columbia.
This plan will keep and simplify the current looped system. The two busy connector routes would remain, but six neighborhood routes would be replaced with flex zones. Blue Route No. 5 would remain largely the same but would serve only Battle High School at the beginning and end of the school day.
Option A would cost $3.75 million per year, or about $18,000 more than what COMO Connect's fixed routes cost now.
Option B: Replace loops with trunk routes, add flex routes
Scenario B would change the bus route from a system of loops to one using trunk routes that run back and forth between two points with Wabash Station as a hub. It includes flex zones.
This plan will replaced the entire loop system with trunk routes. Instead of having buses running in loops, they would run back and forth between two points, and all would go through the Wabash Station bus depot downtown. Passengers would be able to easily access downtown, MU and other routes, the consultant's report said.
Worker-Braddock said the change also would give passengers easier access to customer service at Wabash Station. The plan would shrink COMO Connect's service area and cost $3.69 million per year, or about $38,300 less than current operations.
Option C: Replace loops with trunk routes, increase frequency
Scenario C would focus bus service on areas with the highest numbers of passengers. Buses would run every 20 minutes instead of every 30 minutes.
This plan will eliminate neighborhood routes that have few passengers, and replace the loops with trunk routes just like Option B. It also would increase the frequency with which the routes are run, so passengers could expect a bus every 20 minutes instead of every 30 minutes.
The plan would cost $4.5 million per year, or $794,088 more than current operations.
Option D: Replace loops with trunks, boost frequency, add flex zones
Scenario D adds flex zones to the high-frequency trunk routes outlined in Scenario C.
This plan will utilize the same trunk-route system as Options B and C, have buses run every 20 minutes and add flex-zone service to neighborhoods where few people ride the bus. The Olsson Associates report said this option would provide the highest quality of service to areas with high demand and a base level of service to the rest of the city.
The plan would boost annual operating costs by more than a third. At an estimated $5.1 million per year, it would cost about $1.35 million more than the current COMO Connect routes cost to operate.
Columbia residents will have a chance to hear another presentation about these alternatives at a public meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. April 20 at the Daniel Boone City Building.
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.