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Iowa City reaches out to see if transit could improve

Out of three bus systems, an opportunity

The UI’s Cambus service costs about half as much at the municipal bus services per hour to operate. It relies on student drivers. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The UI’s Cambus service costs about half as much at the municipal bus services per hour to operate. It relies on student drivers. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Talks are underway for a study focusing on Iowa City’s bus service, which some say could mean big changes for local transit.

In Iowa City, a draft of the fiscal 2019 budget includes a roughly $270,000 increase to city transit operations, with much of that aimed toward a route study.

At its base level, the study would evaluate the city service’s routes and hours of operation. But Ryan Sempf, director of government relations and public policy with the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce, said it also could provide a foundation for a more seamless bus service among the metropolitan area’s three providers — Iowa City, Coralville and the University of Iowa.

“We think there is an opportunity to really just help those organizations work better together ... not that they don’t provide great service right now, we just think there are opportunities,” Sempf said. “We kind of see that as the first step moving forward.”

BUS SERVICES INTERTWINED

Iowa City Manager Geoff Fruin said the funding set aside in the proposed budget, set for council approval in March, would focus on matters specific to the city’s bus service — routes, stops, hours and days of operation.

Iowa City’s buses already work closely with those belonging to Coralville and the UI’s Cambus, with all three entities sharing a transit hub near downtown’s Old Capitol Town Center.

Coralville also provides a route to North Liberty in the morning and evening.

In fiscal 2016, Iowa City buses provided more than 1.68 million rides. Coralville had a ridership of close to 538,000 and Cambus saw more than 4.4 million rides.

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With the metropolitan area’s transit routes so intertwined, Fruin said the city has reached out to neighboring entities to seek potential participation in the study.

“Other entities do know we’re looking at this and we’re open to expanding it,” Fruin said.

Jim Sayre, director of parking and transportation with the UI, said the university has expressed interest in participating in the study.

While the Coralville City Council has not reached a consensus on whether to participate in Iowa City’s study, Mayor John Lundell said the three service providers, while separate, already think regionally.

“There’s a great deal of coordination that exists between the three systems, operationally,” he said.

REGIONAL AUTHORITY FACES CHALLENGES

In 2016, a similar study of Cedar Rapids bus services provided guidelines for adjusting routes. It led last year to the first major restructuring of Cedar Rapids Transit bus routes in 15 years.

In addition, the study sparked discussion of possibly handing over Cedar Rapids Transit’s fixed-route bus service from the city to a taxing authority made up of local representatives — called a regional transit authority.

With such an authority, residents within participating communities would be taxed to fund the area transit services.

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Cedar Rapids officials now are researching what such an authority might look like, including how it would function and what the governing and financial structures would entail.

However, what works in Linn County might not work in Johnson County, some officials have said.

More than 90 percent of Cedar Rapids Transit services operate in Cedar Rapids, but routes also extend to Hiawatha and Marion at a cost to those cities.

On the other hand, buses operated by Coralville, Iowa City and Cambus belong to independent entities with their own budgets, so transitioning to a regional transit authority comes with some added barriers.

Unlike the municipal services in Iowa City and Coralville, Cambus does not charge a fare and employs student drivers, which keeps costs down.

To compare, the fiscal 2016 cost to operate a bus for Coralville and Iowa City services was $81.81 and $89.28, respectively, according to performance statistics logged by the Metropolitan Planning Organization of Johnson County. The cost per revenue vehicle hour for Cambus was half that — $43,01.

“That’s because we’re student operated. Any consolidation would obviously make our costs go up,” UI’s Sayre said.

What’s more, Sayre said, the university provides bus and van services to and from several park-and-ride areas to cut down on the need for already limited parking. Such a service likely wouldn’t mesh with regional operations, he said.

“Unlike a municipal transit agency, we just have a different goal. It’s our mission to provide access to services on campus and also support our commuter parking side of things,” he said. “We spend a lot of money to encourage folks not to bring their cars to campus.”

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To add another layer, only counties with populations in excess of 175,000 may create a regional transit district, per Iowa Code. With more than 216,000 residents, Linn County is the only other county besides Polk that’s large enough to create one.

Polk County and Des Moines-area entities created Iowa’s first and only regional authority known as Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority, or DART, more than a decade ago.

The scope of Iowa City’s study has not been defined, but Fruin said it will be important to consider the city service’s connection to Coralville and Cambus.

“Even if we’re not exploring a regional transit authority, we should continue to be mindful of how our routes connect,” he said.

Kim Casko, president and chief executive officer of the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce, said in an email that seamless regional services also provide economic development benefits by making the area more attractive to businesses and potential employees.

“We are excited to see all of the opportunities for regional cooperation that are being discussed by leaders in the community. As we look into the future, the Chamber hopes to continue playing a constructive role and bring people together,” Casko said.

NORTH LIBERTY EXAMINES ITS NEEDS

As Iowa City evaluates its bus service, officials in nearby North Liberty are trying to find what sort of public transit works best for the growing community.

In 2016, North Liberty rolled out its first bus route, which operated for about four hours each weekday. But the City Council last summer axed the project, citing low ridership and high costs.

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Between October 2016 and May 2017, the service averaged 25 rides per day at an average cost of about $225 per trip, according to numbers provided by the city.

“That didn’t go well, in my opinion. There was a very low ridership and a very high cost per rider,” said Sayre, who also serves on the North Liberty City Council.

But the council remains committed to finding North Liberty’s transit solution and plans to allocate another $50,000 this coming year to look at transit services.

“We still are committed to doing something. We have set aside money in our budget to take another stab at something. I think we’re at a point where it’s probably more of a demand/response type service,” Sayre said.

North Liberty currently contracts with Coralville to provide a bus route to and from nearby Iowa City every morning and afternoon.

For intracity services, the trick is finding what best fits the community, Sayre said.

“We know there’s some need. We don’t know what that ‘some’ is, and we’re not exactly sure how to get the best bang for our buck since we’re a small, growing community that hasn’t had transit historically,” he said.

l Comments: (319) 339-3175; mitchell.schmidt@thegazette.com

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