116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Before the COVID-19 pandemic upended all facets of life in March 2020, the city of Cedar Rapids offered Saturday bus service and was looking to offer evening service.
Plans to expand Cedar Rapids Transit service into the evening hours were put on hold and Saturday service was stopped amid the public health crisis.
Starting in summer 2020 during the 2021 budget year, the city had planned for buses to run two hours longer — essentially two additional round trips from the downtown Ground Transportation Center — at the end of the day, pushing the end of service from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Instead, city transit service paused until May 2020 and started up again with modifications.
What’s happened since?
To serve Saturday riders, fixed-route bus service is slated to resume June 11. That’ll take service levels back to where they were before the pandemic.
As for the fate of evening service, Cedar Rapids Transit Manager Brad DeBrower said the city’s plans are still on hold. Officials would like to see ridership increase more from the pandemic-related decline.
In fiscal 2019, the last full budget year before COVID-19 struck, total ridership was nearly 1.25 million. The 2021 budget year that ended June 30, 2021, saw ridership sit at just 44.7 percent of pre-pandemic levels, or 556,654 rides total. The current budget year that ends June 30 isn’t far behind, totaling 532,244 through March.
In addition to budgetary and staffing considerations, DeBrower said uncertainty surrounding federal funding also comes into play.
Cedar Rapids is waiting for the Census Bureau later this year to determine the size of the metropolitan area to see whether the Cedar Rapids metro population exceeds 200,000 or falls short. The metro area is currently considered “small urban,” but anything over 200,000 up to 1 million would be a mid-size urban area.
There are different formulas and criteria to determine annual funding based upon which category an area falls under. Federal funding is up 30 percent from typical levels, DeBrower said, but he could see that being offset if the Census Bureau determines the metro area has grown.
“That will impact our budget depending on which category we’re in,” DeBrower said. “ … We’re a big fish in a small pond right now.”
Noting there has long been demand for expanded service, Deputy City Manager Sandi Fowler said, “It was very clear that was always the No. 1 request, to add night service.”
If ridership continues to rebound and federal funding levels remain high enough, DeBrower said the city could move forward with the plans. If there’s a negative impact on funding, he said “we’ll have to go ahead and assess it at that point.”
Federal funding has filled the gaps while Cedar Rapids has offered free service and enabled bus repairs. In the 2023 budget year that starts July 1, the city is expecting $3.75 million in Federal Section 5307 funding — about a $1 million increase from previous years, which will help fund two bus replacements for fixed-route service and for disability paratransit service.
The city also expects $176,600 in Federal Section 5310 funding and $702,200 in state transit assistance, which DeBrower said also were higher than usual.
Cedar Rapids will soon resume charging fares for transit service for the first time since COVID-19 began to spread. Fares have not been collected to reduce contact and promote social distancing between bus riders and the drivers.
Staff are looking to create an equitable fare program that’s more of an income-based program for a “population that has a financial barrier to using the system as opposed to their age or a disability,” DeBrower said. For instance, he said the program could benefit a single parent “who’s just trying to get by.”
“We want to make sure we also continue to have some sort of programs in place that will help those income-based individuals, as well as the human service agencies that serve them,” DeBrower said. “We get a lot of ticket sales from those agencies.”
Waypoint Services and the downtown Cedar Rapids Public Library are located in the urban core where public transit is most readily accessible, for instance. But the city and social service agencies also have been mindful of locating new services along transit routes, such as Willis Dady’s new Employment Hub at 800 First Ave. NW, a place where Willis Dady clients can be employed and trained in various skills to help further their careers.
Cedar Rapids was charging a $1.50 base fare, but there are other programs that result in reduced rates for students, the elderly and disabled populations.
“We want to simplify it,” DeBrower said. “We want to have something at the fare box that limits confusion.”
DeBrower said staff hope to bring a proposal forward to the City Council’s Finance and Administrative Services Committee in May before sending it to the full council.
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