Cedar Rapids, Iowa City bus systems seeing consistent demand

Re-opening of GTC will help Cedar Rapids ridership; Iowa City benefits from lower car ownership

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There's plenty for a three-year-old to do on a bus ride. When Abbey Reynolds and her mom boarded Cedar Rapids Transit's Number 7 bus one recent afternoon, the driver-signal cord looked interesting.

ďYou pull it when you see our house," Ashley Christe told her daughter. "That way it tells the driver where to stop. Donít pull it yet! When you see were we live, you can pull it.Ē

Christe, who lost her driver's license after a drunken-driving conviction, took advantage of a day off from her job at a downtown restaurant for an outing with her daughter on Cedar Rapids Transit. They rode from ASAC's Heart of Iowa residential substance treatment center off Bowling Street SW to the McDonald's on Blair's Ferry Road NE, the only one in town with an indoor play area.

Just under an hour one way, the ride includes a 10-minute transfer at Lot 44, the makeshift terminal at Second Street and 12th Avenue SE that's replaced the Ground Transportation Center since the June 2008 flood. Christe's usual workday commute downtown is much quicker - usually under 20 minutes.

They're two of about 91,000 riders on the system this month and 1.1 million in the current fiscal year, if recent ridership trends hold up.

ďItís pretty convenient if you work 8 to 5," said Christe, 25. "It works really well - $36 for a monthly pass is a lot cheaper than car insurance, gas and everything else."

"For a city this size, itís pretty cool," said Kevin Squires, riding home to northeast Cedar Rapids from Kirkwood Community College on Route 7. "I was going to school out here in the mid-80s, and Iíd say the bus service has improved since then."

Cedar Rapids Transit is working itself back from the flood, which ironically caused a brief boom in ridership, if not revenues. Flooding at the bus garage at 427 Eighth Ave. SW claimed the system's fare collection equipment, so no fares were collected for about six months as the buses kept running. That led to a peak monthly ridership of 132,452 in October 2008.

ďOur advertising revenue is starting to pick up again, finally, after the flood," said Transit Director Brad DeBrower. "Hopefully this will be the last winter down there in the trailers."

The city earned just over $50,000 for advertising on buses for the fiscal year ending June 30, about $8,000 over budget. The advertising is booked through a Minneapolis agency, which splits its fees with the city.

A city property tax levy accounted for $4.2 million of the service's $8.4 million operating budget. Fares brought in $757,801, with government grants - including $2.4 million from the federal government and $350,000 from the state - covered the balance of the budget. Marion and Hiawatha contribute $204,490 for routes serving those cities.

Ridership† hit a record 1,261,901 for the year ending June 2008 - the month of the flood, and the month a gallon of 10-percent-ethanol gas hit a record $3.94 in Cedar Rapids. Last year's 1,124,108 was just over 52,000 more than fiscal 2010.

Propelled by its student population, Iowa City Transit boarded just under 1.9 million passengers last year. Fares accounted for just over $1 million in revenue, with property taxes adding $3.4 million, federal grants $998,446, and state grants $497,201.

Iowa City's relatively large share of non-car-owners is key to ridership in smaller cities like Iowa's, where congestion is rarely bad enough to force drivers from their cars.

"We donít have the congestion that is directing people to use transit," said Paul Hanley, director of transportation policy at the University of Iowa's Public Policy Center and an associate professor of urban and regional planning.

Without that congestion,"providing transit is almost a social service," said Handley. "Itís hard to get a high ridership."

Hanley said conveniences like Iowa City's Bus on the Go, which uses GPS to track buses' location, can make riding more attractive. Bus on the Go information is displayed at bus-stop kiosks and over smartphones, allowing riders to time their walk to the stop to eliminate waiting.

"Having people know when the bus is coming, that has actually increased ridership," he said. "It has reduced the uncertainty."

Iowa City Transit launched Bus on the Go last December. Last year's ridership was down about 95,000 nonetheless.

"We havenít really looked at it yet because weíve had such a pressing need for new buses," said DeBrower. "Weíll start looking at these additional customer amenities" as the system's recovery continues.

The uncertainty of knowing just where your bus is at is a key concern for would-be transit riders.

"Itís the convenience, schedule," said Hanley. "Itís not the cost. Itís not just the time on the bus that people are gauging, itís also that change on the daily schedule."

Cedar Rapids riders - and drivers - will have it easier when the GTC reopens in about a year.

"We are hoping we will be into the GTC before Thanksgiving next year," said DeBrower.

The $7.5 million rehabilitation will be funded mostly by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Plans to build a new facility nearby were scrapped due to higher-than-expected costs, so Solum Lang Architects of Cedar Rapids is working on a new design DeBrower hopes will eliminate the need for buses to back from terminal stalls into street traffic.

A replacement for the flood-damaged bus garage is also in the works. That's expected to cost about $4.2 million, again mostly FEMA but also including a state grant. DeBrower expects the new garage by February 2013, and "both projects should be significantly underway this construction season."

The new garage will house a fleet virtually rebuilt since the flood, when it was one of the oldest in the nation. Eight 1992 models in late 2008 replacing flood-damaged buses were followed by four new buses in both 2009 and 2010. Five new buses arrived last month, bringing the average fleet age to 10.2 years, cutting maintenance and operating costs.

Federal Transit Authority grants covered 83 percent of the 2009 and '11 bus purchases, 100 percent of the 2010 set. Built by Gillig in California, the buses cost $332,000 (2009) to $358,360 (October) and feature lowered floors in front for improved access. DeBrower recently landed an FTA grant for 80 percent of five new buses to be delivered next summer.

"Then weíll be in really good shape," said DeBrower, with an average fleet age of just over 7 years. It takes 22 buses to operate the daily service.

The system's experiment with electric buses in the late 1990s was enough to convince DeBrower to stick with diesel power.

"They didnít work out at all," DeBrower said of the battery-powered models. "In fairness to the program itself, it was a trial. The technology has come a long way since, but the problem is they cost so dang much," about twice conventional models.

The Iowa Department of Transportation distributes about $10 million in federal transit aid to local systems, according to Michelle McEnany, director of the IDOT's Office of Public Transit. The state's transit systems - they're in all 99 counties, with on-demand services in rural areas - carried 26 million riders last year.

"Not too bad, given that we have a population of 3 million," is McEnany's assessment.

A share of the state tax on car purchases also goes to transit, "and that seems to be trending down a little bit," McEnany said. But federal transit funding must have a political constituency - it's set to increase 4 percent in the current fiscal year.

"Nobodyís talking seriously about taking out the transit funding," Hanley said.

DeBrower's staff regularly considers route adjustments to boost ridership. Route 10, serving southwest Cedar Rapids and the Westdale Mall area, is consistently among the system's top performers along with Routes 7 and 5 South, which serves downtown Marion.

The next spike in gas prices will probably boost ridership, Hanley said.

"Peopleís behavior starts to change as it starts to approach the historic high," he said. Ridership increased about 2007 as gas neared $4 a gallon, "and they havenít really dipped down too much after that."

But even regular riders like Christe, whose short commute fits well with the schedule, find the car is best for grocery shopping and other errands.

"Iím hoping I have my license back before winter, so I donít have to wait," she said as Abbey prepared to tug the stop-signal line.

Gas prices and the econ0my could make a difference on one of the region's most notorious commutes, the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City run on Interstate 380. DeBrower doesn't rule out a corridor service, but "thatís something that should be studied on a regional level."

"The whole question would be where do to you make the stops between, where do you tie in at both ends?" he said. "It is something that we'd just make sure weíre coordinated on our end."

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