• warning: Parameter 2 to ed_classified_link_alter() expected to be a reference, value given in /home/soloneconomist/www/www/includes/common.inc on line 2968.
  • warning: Parameter 2 to ed_classified_link_alter() expected to be a reference, value given in /home/soloneconomist/www/www/includes/common.inc on line 2968.

Council members abort pilot transit program

Intracity service to run through August

NORTH LIBERTY– A poorly patronized North Liberty bus route will make its last stop next month– less than a year after it was launched.
At its July 11 meeting, the North Liberty City Council unanimously voted to end the pilot transit program effective Sept. 1. The decision essentially nullifies a contract with Johnson County, which enabled the city to use a SEATS (Special Needs and Elderly Assisted Transportation System) bus and driver since last fall.
“I think conceptually this is a great service,” said council member Annie Pollock. “I think we’ve given great effort toward it.”
The route made its first loop in October 2016 after nearly a year of development by a transit advisory committee. It was meant to provide midday transportation for “transit-dependent” individuals, such as the elderly, and operates for roughly three hours between 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Dial-responsive paratransit rides were also offered during the same time period, but that option was not once utilized.
City Planner Dean Wheatley said the pilot service was strongly publicized to the target population but that very few people are regularly riding the bus.
“I think that’s part of my frustration,” said Wheatley. “I don’t know what else we could’ve done.”
According to statistics included in the July 11 council packet, the route is averaging just 25 one-way rides– or roughly 12 round-trips– per month, equating to an average cost of $224 per trip. In total, the city has been billed $28,076, which boils down to $48 per hour and about $4,000 each month.
“We’re driving around a bus for three to four thousand (dollars) a month that nobody’s riding,” said council member Brian Wayson. “Three to four thousand a month eventually adds up, and we’re going to need that money for something else down the road.”
He suggested a new fire truck.
In a memo to the city council, Mayor Terry Donahue expressed his concern about subsidizing the service for a seemingly small group of people.
“While I agree that some city services should be subsidized, such as the swimming pool, recreation center services; I really have to question the feasibility of sustaining these types of numbers at the cost we see,” he wrote.
Originally, the city council allotted $50,000 to the transit program in fiscal year 2016 and has since kept the budgeted amount the same. Another $80,000 is reserved each year for the twice-daily Coralville bus that runs from North Liberty to Iowa City.
Wayson said he’d like to cut that service as well.
“There are alternatives for people trying to get to town, especially for people working at the university,” he said. “We just cannot afford to do a big public transit service with everything else that we need to do. And being a band-aid is really wasting the money.”
Recent ridership statistics show the “big bus,” as Wayson called it, is averaging around 20 riders per day, with an annualized cost per ride around $5-7. Like the in-city service, users must pay $1 to board, each way.
And, Wheatley noted, those 20 riders could be boarding at any stop along the route, meaning it’s possible some riders aren’t even North Liberty residents.
Although Wayson pushed to make a decision regarding the Coralville bus, he was met with resistance.
“That’s another issue,” said council member Chris Hoffman. “I’d like it to be a committee recommendation that the transit committee helps us figure out.”
Hoffman, who was initially hesitant about pulling the plug on the intracity service in the first place, said he’d like there to be a larger conversation about an integrated transportation service between North Liberty, Coralville and Iowa City.
“Maybe that’s contrary to what this group might be feeling right now, but if we don’t do it now in this process, we’re just delaying that,” he said.
Pollock agreed.
“I don’t want to tackle just one thing when we need to be tackling multiple things,” she said.
Pollock also wondered aloud whether or not a recent survey by the communications department would help shed some light on what North Libertarians are looking for when it comes to public transit.
“I think it’d be important to see what we get back from that,” she said.
Her fellow council members disagreed that the survey would tell them anything useful.
“I think it’s hard to justify continuing to spend the money,” said council member Jim Sayre. “But I would suggest that we set aside that money that would’ve been spent on continuing the service for whatever we come up with in the future.”
Wayson suggested some sort of block grant that could be divvied up among local agencies such as the North Liberty Community Pantry and senior centers.
“Let them figure it out,” he said. “Maybe they’ll get them to use it and we’ll accomplish what we wanted to in the first place in a more economical fashion.”
Council member Sarah Madsen also proposed teaming up with area groceries stores, such as Fareway, to deliver items to those unable to make the trip.
“I agree that this is cost prohibitive and we need to think of other alternatives,” she added. “I’m happy to participate in whatever group needs to discuss what the alternative should be.”
Donahue called for more residents to join the Transit Advisory Committee. An application is available on the city’s website at northlibertyiowa.org and must be submitted by 5 p.m. on Thursday, July 20. Applications will be considered at the next city council meeting Tuesday, July 25.