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Proposed 1-cent sales tax would add, expand Wichita bus routes

Published on -8/4/2014, 8:47 AM

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By Kelsey Ryan

The Wichita Eagle

(MCT) Nearly every day, Yosef Wanger rides the bus to Wright Career College, where he's studying computers.

Wanger's main mode of transportation, Wichita's transit system, awaits a crucial decision on its future Tuesday.

"It really benefits me," Wanger said Thursday afternoon as he waited for his transfer bus to take him home. "You don't have to pay insurance, you don't have to pay the gas. It's been really helpful.

"Until you really need to go somewhere like to school or work, you don't really see the need (for the bus system). But the bus system is what keeps Wichita going and moving.... It gives me a sense of independence."

If the City Council votes Tuesday to approve it, a 1-cent sales tax will be on the November ballot. Wichita's transit system would be one of several projects to receive public funds.

City officials estimate the sales tax would generate about $400 million over the next five years, funding a new water supply ($250 million), street maintenance and repair ($27.8 million), job development ($80 million) and transit ($39.8 million).

"One of my goals is to make sure that we don't ever hear that the lack of transportation is the reason why someone couldn't get a job, medical attention or education," said transit director Steve Spade. "We should have a system that doesn't have those kinds of barriers for people."

As part of the proposed transit plan, city officials hope to add and expand routes in 2015 and 2016, increase peak-hour service in 2016 and add evening routes until 11 p.m. starting in 2017.

"The public was saying 'You don't go all the places we need to go and when we need to get there. You don't cover enough of the city,'" Spade said.

Spade wants to expand from the current 16 routes to have more that go across town -- the first steps away from the traditional "spoke and wheel" model that requires going downtown to transfer.

"It's pretty typical for a Midwestern city where the route radiates from downtown. But people don't always want to go downtown," Spade said.

Some of the proposed route expansions for 2015 and 2016 include:

-- Extending the East 17th Street route from Wichita State University to North Rock Road and Bradley Fair.

-- Adding a crosstown route from 31st Street South to 29th Street North along Hillside.

-- A new route connecting Douglas from West Street east to Woodlawn or Towne East Square.

-- A new crosstown route along 21st Street connecting North Rock Road and NewMarket Square.

-- Connecting the West Maple and East 17th Street routes.

-- Connecting the East and West Central routes.

Expanded routes would mean a growing fleet of buses. Currently, about 35 buses run during peak hours, Spade said. The plan would allow up to 52 buses to run during peak hours by 2017.

He said he also wants to improve peak-hour service so buses run more often than once every 30 minutes.

It's an idea that Teresa Johnson, who has been riding the bus for about 10 years, supports. She uses it go to school, work and the store on weekdays. Without it, she would "be up the creek without a paddle" since she doesn't drive.

She thinks the extended routes and hours would be worth a 1-cent sales tax.

"It helps a lot of people get to their jobs and be able to function in the Wichita area," she said.

The number of rides taken on the transit system in 2012 was about 2.25 million and in 2013 it was about 2.15 million. So far this year, it's followed the same trend and is "slowly eroding," Spade said.

"One of our challenges is 'How do we show the value of the system to the community when all they've gotten to see is it operating at a very low level?'" Spade said.

"We should have more people choosing to ride the bus. If you look at other communities, it's a service people choose to consume, but to do that we have to have a service that's competitive and starts to meet needs."

Spade attributes the drop in the number of riders to the city's decision several years ago to cut service on the west side and to raise fares.

"Rather than generate additional revenue, it resulted in the loss of ridership," he said. "It's not really good business to cut the quality of service and raise your fare at the same time. We're hoping this fall to study our fare structure and what we might do to stimulate ridership and increase revenues."

If the proposed sales tax is put on the ballot and approved by voters in November, Spade said the transit department will seek additional input from the public to prioritize the route changes.

(c)2014 The Wichita Eagle

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