Staff Columnist

Circling Marion, looking for a place to sit

52 of 54 Marion bus stops offer no amenities

Following parking lot improvements at the Marion WalMart, a longstanding shelter at the bus stop was not reinstalled. The bus stop, shown on the right, which is one of the busiest on the route, offers transit riders no protection or seating. On the opposite side of the parking lot entrance, shown on the left, the company has provided several benches as part of an area for smokers. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)
Following parking lot improvements at the Marion WalMart, a longstanding shelter at the bus stop was not reinstalled. The bus stop, shown on the right, which is one of the busiest on the route, offers transit riders no protection or seating. On the opposite side of the parking lot entrance, shown on the left, the company has provided several benches as part of an area for smokers. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)
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Marion’s relatively new circulator public transit route has decreased waiting times for most riders, especially those who didn’t need or want to travel into Cedar Rapids. Other changes, however, haven’t been as welcome.

A year ago Marion was serviced by two Cedar Rapids Transit routes. Both were spokes from the downtown Cedar Rapids transit hub, which meant that some riders, depending on where they boarded the bus, would need to ride along First Avenue into downtown Cedar Rapids before returning to Marion.

That changed about eight months ago when Cedar Rapids Transit instituted a major route overhaul that decentralized some routes through the creation of mini-hubs at Lindale Mall, the Walmart near Hiawatha and the Walmart near Westdale. The Marion circulator route, which I adamantly supported, connects at the Lindale hub. It not only increased bus frequency, but expanded bus service ­— most notably across Highway 13 to the Marion Enterprise Center business and industrial park where the Marion Police Department is located.

The circulator, which offers dedicated Marion service all day, required an added yearly investment of $167,000. It was and is money well spent by growing Marion.

Now known as Route 20, the circulator includes 54 stops, including senior living and apartment complexes, museums, schools, city services, parks, the municipal pool and, of course, shopping. An immediate, positive change was the abandonment of a bus stop in a steep drainage ditch at the busy intersection of Business Highway 151 and 35th Street. The bus stop was moved next to the 35th Street entrance to the Marion Hy-Vee, an area that provides a sidewalk as well as a couple of decorative boulders I’ve seen riders use as makeshift seating.

But, like 52 out of Route 20’s 54 stops, there is no shelter for riders.

Which brings us to why I’ve spent the last few weeks asking questions about Route 20. I was contacted by a reader and transit rider who asked if I knew what happened to the bus stop shelter at the Marion Walmart, formerly located near the Eighth Avenue parking lot entrance. I had seen the uprooted shelter toppled onto its side during parking lot resurfacing; at that time, I was told by local managers that the shelter would be reinstalled.

The work was completed months ago, but a trip to the site showed my caller was correct: The shelter is gone. The bus stop is nothing more than two painted-off parking spaces at the edge of the lot, a storm drain and a trash can. No shelter. No seating. A large pile of disgusting snow.

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I called Walmart for an update and was told that the company wasn’t sure what happened, that the city of Marion removed the shelter.

Not true, city officials said. Someone, presumably Walmart or workers acting on the company’s behalf, loaded the shelter and hauled it to Cedar Rapids Transit, effectively abandoning a structure that had stood at that location for years.

The silver lining, if there is one, is the city has taken possession of the shelter and plans to reinstall it at a bus stop near the Azure apartment complex on 10th Street. It will be a welcome addition to that area, which has some of the highest levels of transit ridership in Marion.

But the Walmart situation remains concerning for several reasons. If you stand at the bus stop and look south, across the Eighth Street entrance, you’ll see some more parking spaces that have been reserved. Look more closely and you’ll see several benches, all chained to that area, and smoking receptacles. It appears the local Walmart values smokers more than transit riders.

Walmart, an Arkansas-based company known as the world’s largest retailer, had total revenue of $500.3 billion in fiscal 2018. The company touts its “responsibility to make a positive impact” in the communities it serves. Between cash and in-kind services, Walmart and its foundation reports more than $1.4 billion in charitable giving.

And yet Walmart can’t scrape together enough cash to give Marion shoppers and employees a bus stop shelter? It couldn’t be bothered or stomach the expense of reinstalling the shelter it already had?

Perhaps Walmart didn’t know its shelter was one of only three in the entire city. Maybe it missed the transit ridership report showing the stop in its parking lot is one of the four most used. Or maybe Walmart just doesn’t care that people with shopping bags and young children have to stand in the elements with a smelly trash can, while watching Walmart employees recline on a bench with a cigarette. Suddenly, makeshift seating on decorative boulders isn’t looking so bad.

City officials, on the other hand, are planning for more transit amenities. Improvements are on the drawing board for the stretch of Business Highway 151 between 35th Street and Highway 13, which is likely to include better options for both pedestrians and transit riders.

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The city also applied for and received a grant earmarked for bus stops, although the award was much smaller than what was requested, and improvements aren’t expected until 2021. Meanwhile, nearly all bus stops in Marion consist of a sign on a pole, the vast majority not accessible to those with disabilities and unwelcoming to everyone. If you ask, city officials quickly, and rightfully, point out that bus stops need to be made accessible only when they are part of larger improvement projects. We’ll have to wait and see how construction of the new roundabout on 15th Street, which is on the bus route, incorporates transit.

At this moment only two Marion stops offer seating — 11th Street and First Avenue near Oak Village and 15th Street and Grand Avenue near the Starry ball fields. Those also are the only two stops with a shelter.

While it is true that the city isn’t legally obligated to provide comfort or accessibility at its bus stops, I wonder about the ethical implications. The dedicated bus route leaves no question that riders are part of the Marion community — students, workers, residents. Modifying a curb for wheelchair access or installing a bench isn’t an unreasonable request, if transit riders are valued. Then again, we know how such assumptions played out at Walmart.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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