Catching a bus around Cedar Rapids? Major shake-up coming
Busiest routes will get relief, but there are trade-offs
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CEDAR RAPIDS — The first major shake-up of the city’s bus system in 15 years will bring more frequency on the busiest routes and satellite hubs to save time, but some stops will be eliminated and some riders will need to walk farther to catch a bus.
Cedar Rapids Transit riders can expect a learning curve after the changes to routes and schedules are implemented July 31. But transportation officials say the new lineup prioritizing higher-use areas and in-demand destinations — such as schools and one-stop shopping — should draw more riders while serving nearly the same geography.
“It will be weird getting used to the new numbers on the buses,” said Avionte Crawford, 16, who catches the bus after school, to see friends or to get around when his parents can’t give him a ride.
The changes have been in the works for a year, stemming from a 2016 transit study commissioned by the Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization A daylong open house on the changes was held in March and the Cedar Rapids City Council approved changes to the routes and schedules last Tuesday after holding a public hearing.
The 14-route system, with 30 buses supporting 1.3 million annual rides, had seen an uptick in usage, although ridership dipped slightly last year. It was wasting resources in low-use areas and not providing enough service in busy areas. And all routes looped through the Ground Transportation Center in downtown Cedar Rapids, whether riders wanted to or not.
“Frequency is what will change modes of transportation and increase ridership,” said Brandon Whyte, a Corridor MPO multimodal transportation planner.
According to the Census Bureau, 1.7 percent of commuters here use public transportation. Tweaks to the system occurred in 2009 but the last overhaul this big was in 2002, Whyte said.
Hours of service — 5:15 a.m. to 6:20 p.m., depending on the route — and days of service — Monday to Friday, with free, reduced service on Saturday — stay the same. The overhaul is intended to be cost neutral, so fares aren’t rising.
“Many riders will see the same service, but it might be on different buses,” Whyte said.
Still, the new routes likely will require more transfers to get from point A to point B, such as from downtown Marion to downtown Cedar Rapids. Whyte, and Brad DeBrower, manager of Cedar Rapids Transit, said the extra transfers likely will be moot financially for people making round trips, since day passes remain $3. The increased frequency, they said, should offset any time lost for transfers.
At a high level, the new system accomplishes several things:
l Increased frequency: Stop intervals systemwide will decrease from 30 to 90 minutes to 15 to 60 minutes, including 15-minutes stops on the busy No. 5 routes between downtown Cedar Rapids and the Lindale Mall. The 5S, 5B and 5N lines account for 25 percent of the ridership.
“Right now we are turning people away on the 5 because the buses are so full,” Whyte said.
l Popular destinations: Each line will offer multiple popular destinations such as shopping, work and schools. New service locations will include the Marion Police Department, Linn-Mar High School, General Mills and the Driver’s License Station.
l Decentralized system: Lindale Mall, Wal-Mart on 29th Avenue SW and the Wal-Mart on Blairs Ferry Road NE will become satellite hubs each serving multiple lines. Two new circulator routes, the 20 in northeast Cedar Rapids and Marion and the 30 in North Cedar Rapids and Hiawatha, will replace the 5N and 5B, respectively. This will minimize unnecessary trips to the Ground Transportation Center.
l Fewer stops: About 5 percent of the 1,110 bus stop locations will be eliminated, with a focus on paring down low-usage stops and spacing out stops from every one or two blocks to every three or four blocks. Riders served by the bus shouldn’t have to walk more than a quarter mile to a stop, Whyte said.
“We know people depending on service will be impacted,” DeBrower said.
The changes don’t accomplish one of the most common requests: evening and Sunday service.
“Customers want night service; we hear that loud and clear,” Whyte said. “But we don’t have the resources without increasing the tax levy or a major reshuffle, such as getting rid of morning peak service.”
Cedar Rapids has a 81-cent transit levy, while Marion’s upcoming budget increases its levy from 15 to 26.8 cents per $1,000 in taxable property value. Hiawatha’s contribution comes from its general fund.
The Cedar Rapids Transit budget for fiscal 2018 is $10.1 million. The largest contributors are $5.15 million from Cedar Rapids, $2.7 million from the Federal Transit Administration, $918,000 from fares and advertising, $580,000 from the Iowa Department of Transportation, $320,000 from Marion and $120,000 from Hiawatha.
A gap in service also remains between the Cedar Rapids metro and Iowa City metro, which planners have identified for years as a need.
Cedar Rapids Transit reaches Linn County’s southern border near The Eastern Iowa Airport, but northbound service in Johnson County ends in North Liberty.
The Eastern Iowa Council of Governments has said it plans to introduce an intercity bus service between Cedar Rapids and Iowa in 2018, and recently launched a vanpool to help workers tackle long-distance commutes. But it has not found much interest.
Sharon Vieth, 50, takes the No. 9 in the southeast quadrant daily to get to Hy-Vee, the dentist, Anytime Fitness and to catch transfers to other locations such as the Lindale Mall where she was returning from last Monday.
The No. 9 is among the routes that will see the biggest changes, and Vieth has concerns.
As it is, the bus stops next to her home near Memorial Drive SE and Buchanan Drive SE. Under the changes. she will have to walk two blocks.
“In bad weather, if it is snowy or icy, it’s not good at all,” Vieth said. “I understand they need the bus to serve Route 5. That bus is crowded. But there’s a better way than to get rid of the 9.”
The No. 9 will cease to exist and merge with the No. 2 route serving much of the same area, although eliminating an area north of Mount Vernon Road SE between 34th Street SE and East Post Road SE. Frequency will continue with pickups every 30 minutes during peak hours and 60 minutes otherwise.
“Over the years this area has dwindled down to just a few people a day,” Steve Barker, the driver for the No. 9, said of the neighborhood being eliminated.
Twelve of 15 stops in the neighborhood average zero passengers a day and the three busiest have between one and five daily, according to city data. Ridership figures helped guide changes in the system.
Jamie Gharib, 30, rides the No. 6 and 5B buses a few times a week to get around the north part of Cedar Rapids, such as her mother’s place, Wal-Mart on Blairs Ferry or Cedar Valley Community Support — but her route brings her through downtown Cedar Rapids.
“If you use the 6 or 5B, you have to go downtown, which is not very convenient,” she said.
The new No. 30 circulator to North Cedar Rapids and Hiawatha, which will stop at the Lindale Mall, Wal-Mart, Target, Hy-Vee and Hiawatha Elementary without an unnecessary trip downtown, should save her some time.
Riders in Marion and northeast Cedar Rapids can expect a similar benefit, but will now need transfers to go between the two downtown areas.
Cedar Rapids Transit had recommended a downtown Cedar Rapids to downtown Marion direct route with stops every 20 minutes, but the additional distance and frequency would have cost more, and Marion city officials would not agree to cover the added costs, DeBrower said.
“Frequency is critical to transit, but frequency costs,” he said.
The transit study leading to the bus changes revealed Cedar Rapids had been subsidizing service for Marion and Hiawatha. Under the new system, those subsidies are scheduled to expire by fiscal 2019. DeBrower said the plan calls for Marion, which pays $245,000, to pay an extra $75,000 in fiscal 2018 and 2019; and Hiawatha, which pays $96,144, an extra $24,000 in fiscal 2018 and the remaining gap in fiscal 2019.
“I think it’s been one of those — and I don’t take Cedar Rapids’ side too often — but I think it’s one of those someone else handled for so long it’s become a benefit they’ve received and they haven’t had to realize the full payment for,” said Brent Oleson, a Linn County supervisor from Marion and a member of the Corridor MPO.
The Corridor MPO allocates 20 percent of the federal money it gets to roads, 80 percent to bike amenities and none to public transit. But the model will shift in 2020-24, with 50 percent for roads, 30 percent for bikes and 20 percent for public transit. This will mean an estimated $4.1 million extra for transit over four years,
Marion has requested $135,000 from the Corridor MPO toward a $400,000 project in fiscal 2021-22 to install bus shelters similar to what Hiawatha has, Whyte said. Many Hiawatha stops have a landing pad and enclosed shelters.
The Corridor MPO has hired a consultant to study establishing a regional transit authority, which would be an independent taxing agency with representatives for the different stakeholders to oversee transit in Linn County.
Initial findings could be made at the end of August, but the full study potentially could take until mid-2018. Local planners have been examining the Des Moines Area Transit Authority as an example.
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