The below story originally aired May 16, 2014
The city of Wichita’s public transportation provides about 2 million rides a year; rides that can lead to jobs, to an education or to medical appointments. But the city’s budget is strained and the future funding of transit is far from clear.
A Need For Transportation
Wichita’s central transit station is located in the heart of downtown, just one street over from the stop-and-go traffic of Douglas St. It’s a busy place; there are 30 or so people waiting to board different buses and many people are here out of necessity.
“I’m using it today to go to the doctor’s office, because my car has no tag on it right now,” said Alaneua Duckett, who has never ridden the bus before.
She’s having to familiarize herself with the scheduling of different buses.
“The bus service to me has been really slow today, so I’ve been waiting downtown for at least 45 minutes,” Duckett explains.
This particular station acts as a connector; it’s a necessary stop for people that live on one side of town and need to get to the other. Duckett says she’ll make it to her doctor’s appointment on time because she left hours early - she hopes to never have to rely on the bus again.
“I don’t want to use this system at all," Duckett says. "It seems like I could already be at my destination by now.”
For someone who normally drives a car, waiting long periods of time to catch a bus can seem antiquated.
Alexandra Baran does not seem to mind the wait, she sits just a few feet away from Duckett. She’s older and she wears a large neck brace.
“I just got out of a coma, I was in a Topeka hospital – someone smashed into me."
Baron says when she saw the damage to her vehicle, she feared getting behind the wheel again.
For the most part, she says she is happy with Wichita Transit. The routes reach many of the places she needs to go and the buses are usually on time. She says that, if not for the bus, she’d have to walk miles everyday.
“I’d just die…I wouldn’t like it at all,” she says.
For the people gathered at this large outside plaza, the transit system can be essential. It provides access to employment, it can mean groceries not purchased at a gas station, and can offer access to vital healthcare.
Municipal Funding Spread Thin
“If we keep the level of funding where it is, we will eventually lose additional ridership and even the federal funding allocation that we get for transit,” Wichita City Councilwoman Janet Miller explains. “We’re really sitting on the brink of either a death spiral for the transit system, or an opportunity to start incrementally improving it through additional funding.”
Miller says the system is currently running partially on reserve funds that will run out at the end of this year. That has council members scrambling to find ways to sustain it at its current level, but also expand the system to meet the needs of its riders.
“We’ve heard from the public that they want a more robust transit system because right now our system is not fully developed. It’s not easy to use and it takes a long time," Miller says.
The recent additions of 10 new buses and a route that goes door-to-door at New Market Square has given the impression that the transit system is growing, but much of this was funded through federal grants and is not sustainable in the long run, according to Miller. The true expansion, which would include service later into the night, as well as on Sundays, has a high price tag.
'The city has a vision plan laid out and they have a sense of what it would cost to implement it, either in part or in full. In part, it could be as much as $7 - 10 million additional a year, fully funded it could be as much as $23 - 25 million more a year," Miller notes.
In order to find the funds they need, city council would need to create a new, tenth-of-a-cent sales tax devoted to the bus system.
The Wichita Transit System
Transit Director Steve Spade says they run about 35 buses during rush hour. Other cities similar in size to Wichita are running 85 or 90 buses during this time. Spade says the city has grown and transit hasn’t kept pace with it.
“There have been a series of public discussions about transit and what we ought to be doing with it, and there were some consistent themes from people,” Spade says. “They say we need to run buses later at night, add Sunday bus service, and have more coverage in the city. So, we know there's a demand and support from the public, now it's matter of getting those plans in place, getting a budget that's sustainable, so we can look at growing the service.”
Spade says a key to a healthier system is to work at being more attractive to citizens who might want to ride the bus instead of those that have to.
Finding a Reason to Ride
Karen Cravens is president of the Delano Neighborhood Association. She is a regular bus rider now, but says she first used transit to help save money.
“I lived out past Maize Road, which was out in the sticks at the time. I drove my car in to Central and Tyler, to what used to be a Dillons, and parked there and rode the bus because it was cheaper than buying a parking space downtown,” Cravens says.
She would eventually fall out of the habit of using the bus for many years, but as Wichita added more routes west through Delano, she and her husband started making an effort to eventually have only one car. She says there are residents in Delano that have also embraced this idea, but she remembers one that shied away from buses altogether.
“It was intimidating to her, even though theoretically it was a necessity to her. It would have really given her a lot more freedom. It was just a little too intimidating to get on there and think, well maybe I’m going to get all the way across town and I won’t understand how to get back,” she recounts.
For this very reason Cravens has helped organize a bus to visit Delano’s annual block party. She says it will allow people to learn more about the transit system and better acquaint themselves with the actual buses.
Air Quality Affected by Bus Use
An unintended consequence of an under-serving transit system is air quality. Wichita’s air pollutant readings are high, and dangerously close to causing harsher regulations from the EPA, according to Councilwoman Janet Miller.
“We’re going to really have to make some changes or it’s going to be really costly for our community. One of the ways that we can help to improve air quality or - at least to keep it from getting worse - is to have fewer cars on the road. And if we have more people riding public transportation, certainly that’s going to help.”
City officials will have to weigh all of these factors when creating the pie chart for municipal expenditures, culminating in a budget later this year that may or may not provide the funding the bus system needs.
The Adopted 2014-2015 Wichita City Budget - This document (.pdf) outlines the adopted city expenditures through December of 2015.
This adopted budget includes numerous references to the hurdles Wichita Transit faces.
A full financial profile of Wichita Transit can be found starting on pg. 245
Follow Sean Sandefur on Twitter, @SeanSandefur