Missouri cities handle transit systems, funding differently
Who’s driving the bus?
Sunday, April 28, 2013
Amid discussions of how much general revenue funds should be spent on transit, Jefferson City is looking to re-evaluate its transit system and see if changes need to made.
Several other Missouri cities operate transit systems using a variety of methods and funding mechanisms.
According to the National Transit Database, nine Missouri cities operate transit systems, including Jefferson City. Because of the size and complexity of the systems in St. Louis, Kansas City and Springfield, the News Tribune did not include those cities in a comparison of transit systems.
Jefferson City’s transit system is a fixed-route system, meaning the buses travel the same designated routes each day, never deviating from the route for a passenger. Federal regulations require a city with a fixed-route transit system also operate a paratransit route, known in Jefferson City as Handi Wheels, to serve those with disabilities.
In the 2013 budget, Jefferson City’s transit system has a more than $5 million budget, with more than $2.2 million scheduled to come from federal grants. Less than $10,000 is slated to come from state grants and $30,000 is scheduled to come from local grants. More than half of the total transit budget comes from intergovernmental grants.
More than $206,000 comes from service charges, such as fares and bus passes. The city’s original 2013 budget had the general fund contributing $880,000 to the transit budget, but cuts approved by the City Council last month have brought that amount to just less than $800,000.
Richard Turner, transit division director, said JeffTran and Handi Wheels combined had about 350,000 rides last year.
In Columbia, Christa Holtzclaw, marketing specialist with Columbia Transit, said the system operates a fixed-route system, much like Jefferson City, with about 2 million rides in 2012. In the city’s 2013 budget, the transit system was allocated $10 million for operations, with $1.4 million coming from grants and $2 million from fees and service charges.
Holtzclaw said a portion of the transit budget comes from a halfcent transportation sales tax, which Columbia voters approved in 1982. The transportation sales tax provides funds for Columbia’s airport, transit system, various road projects, and street and sidewalk projects. The 2013 budget for transit includes $5.2 million from transfers and capital grants from the Federal Transit Administration, $2.5 million of which came from the half-cent sales tax.
Holtzclaw said the city is considering a change in how transit operates in Columbia. She said the reason a change is being considered is that transit in the past couple of years has needed some general revenue funds to cover all its expenses, something the City Council is looking to avoid.
“The council has actually directed us to look into a study, doing a study, on what the best system for Columbia would look like,” Holtzclaw said. “The reason (the council) wanted to do the transportation study ... is because they don’t want to continue with the dipping into general fund.”
Holtzclaw said the city is not considering a flex route or routedeviation plan even though it is looking at possible changes to the transit system. She said such a system likely would not work in Columbia because of the sheer span of the city.
“(Columbia) is much larger than most cities with this population, it’s just not a very dense city,” Holtzclaw said. “I think with the flex route you’d end up with a lot of problems, potentially.”
But in St. Joseph, the flex route is what operates throughout the area. Instead of operating one fixed-route system and one paratransit system, the city operates the flex-route system or route-deviation system.
Mary Gaston, general manager of transit in St. Joseph, said the route-deviation system allows the city to combine the fixed route and paratransit route into one operating route that can go anywhere within St. Joseph.
“It’s a unique system, it’s pretty unusual in this country,” Gaston said. “It’s not something you’ll come across very often.”
Gaston said the system has structured routes, but for an additional fare, riders can request pickups or dropoffs at any location within city limits. She said there is a significant amount of extra time built into the schedule to allow for the deviations from the routes.
“Generally, it works pretty well,” Gaston said. “The drawback is that because of all the extra time built into the schedules, our service is not as frequent as some other systems of our size might be able to provide their customers.”
Gaston said the city decided to go with the route-deviation system to meet requirements for those with disabilities without having to incur the cost of establishing a separate paratransit system.
“There are some pretty hefty expenses that go along with establishing a paratransit system,” Gaston said.
Gaston said the city’s transit system averages about 425,000 rides per year.
For 2012, St. Joseph’s transit system has a nearly $5.2 million budget. More than $1.2 million comes from grants and about $300,000 comes from fares. The rest comes from two different taxes that work to fund the transit system.
Andy Clements, assistant director of public works in St. Joseph, said 81 percent, or $3.5 million, of the transit funding comes from local funds. The remaining amount mostly comes from federal grants, he said.
Clements said St. Joseph voters approved three ballot measures dealing with transportation funding: a utilities franchise tax in 1984, a oneeighth cent sales tax in 1994 and an additional one-eighth cent sales tax in 2008.
Joplin also operates something like a flex-route system. Robert Lolley, Joplin transit coordinator, said the city’s trolley system, which is the transit system, operates a demandresponse system. Lolley said some of the routes only deviate so far off their normal routes, while others offer the curb-tocurb service, much like in St. Joseph.
Lolley said Joplin’s service avoids the cost of a separate paratransit route, as well as the additional regulations they would need to comply with if the city did offer the paratransit route separately.
“Doing it this way allows us to not have to focus on that, we just focus on our riders,” Lolley said.
Leslie Haase, Joplin’s finance director, said the city’s system costs about $1.6 million to operate. For the current fiscal year, she said the system received $943,000 in federal grants. Fares bring in about $122,000, and the city’s transportation sales tax provides the remaining $613,000 needed to run the system. No general revenue funds are used to operate the system.
The trolleys had 155,000 rides in 2012, Lolley said.
In Independence, the system differs greatly from what Jefferson City offers, even though the routes are fixed.
Mary Hunt, senior planner with the Community Development department in Independence, said the city really offers three different systems: an intercity route, operated by the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, or KCATA; two commuter routes that run only in the mornings and late afternoon; and IndeBus, a local transit system that runs solely within city limits and is operated by an outside contractor, First Transit.
Hunt said one of their seven fixed routes does have the ability to offer the route-deviation system, a fairly new concept for Independence. She said the city opted to try it in an area with a large elderly population.
“We’re hoping that it would maybe offer them another alternative,” Hunt said.
All three types combined see about 350,000 rides per year, she said.
Hunt said the entire transit system costs nearly $2 million to operate. She said federal funds provide about 23 percent of the transit budget and other grants bring in about 19 percent of the funds, though that fluctuates year to year. This year, local funds will cover 43 percent of the transit budget, or almost $836,000, she said, all of which will come from general revenue. Passenger revenue will bring in about 15 percent of the funds, Hunt said, which shows how healthy the system is.
Hunt said the issue with transit systems always is the volatility of funding and how to deal with funding gaps when one grant or one source of funds goes away.
“Every year you’re dealing with these sort of gyrations with funding sources, and we always seem to be tapping our local resources, our general fund, because we don’t have any dedicated revenue stream for that service,” Hunt said. “That to me is the biggest challenge.”
The city of Liberty also contracts with KCATA for transit service. Shawnna Funderburk, assistant to the city administrator in Liberty, said the city pays KCATA more than $42,000 to operate transit service within city limits to and from destinations in Kansas City. Funderburk said Liberty does not operate any service of its own outside of that provided by KCATA, which runs two morning bus trips and two evening bus trips Monday through Friday.
Danny O’Connor, director of planning in KCATA Planning and Special Services, said the Liberty routes are fixed-route systems that average about 105 rides per day. O’Connor said KCATA operates 62 routes and contracts with 10 cities outside of Kansas City to provide service. A majority of cities they contract with use general revenue funds to pay for the service, he said.
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