116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
MARION — Pumping the brakes — at least for now — on a proposal to create an on-demand, round-the-clock “micro transit” system for its residents, Marion is instead likely to extend it current agreement with Cedar Rapids to provide bus service in the city.
The Marion City Council will likely vote in May to extend the deal though fiscal 2023 to give the city more time to figure out the details of what the future of its public transportation could look like.
Marion now has a transit agreement with Cedar Rapids to provide service in town, but also has an agreement with Horizons for after-hours rides. Back in January, Horizons gave a presentation to the City Council showing what an round-the-clock, on-demand, micro-transit option could look like.
The City Council directed city staff to formalize a timeline and prepare documents to move forward with the fully micro-transit option. But further discussions with Cedar Rapids, Linn County LIFTS and the Iowa Department of Transportation have caused Marion to rethink that idea.
“Back in January, we were still figuring it all out,” said Marion Associate Planner Kesha Billings. “Cedar Rapids transit and LIFTS called me about paratransit, which is currently a subcontract through Cedar Rapids. … If we were to go on-demand, what does that look like and can we incorporate that?” Linn County’s LIFTS program helps riders who cannot use buses because of a disability.
After figuring out its state and federal funding for transportation, Cedar Rapids gave Marion a revised cost of $431,000 for the bus contract next fiscal year. The amount it had proposed earlier this year was an increase of over $100,000 at $535,000.
“From the DOT perspective, Cedar Rapids is the transit agency for the metro area, so we have to figure out how to get these services under their umbrella. So these are the conversations and figuring out what Cedar Rapids and Marion are both comfortable with,” Billings said.
Billings added that to be an “authorized transit agency,” there has to be Iowa DOT approval. She said if Marion were to do that, that would potentially split state and federal dollars between Cedar Rapids and Marion, as Marion having its own service would take away some of Cedar Rapids Transit’s riders, which is in part how funding is allocated.
“I don’t know if Marion has a big desire to be an authorized transit agency, so we’re not necessarily looking for that approval. It’s all learning at this point,” Billings said.
City Manager Ryan Waller said based on what the city has learned, it “doesn’t make sense” to establish its own transit system completely separate from Cedar Rapids.
“If we work collaboratively, we will have a greater impact,” Waller said. “The DOT made it clear that Cedar Rapids is the service provider of the area and should be helping us come up with transit solutions, so that’s the direction we’re taking. Plus, it is a regional thing. What’s good for Cedar Rapids is good for Marion and vice versa.”
Cedar Rapids Transit Manager Brad DeBrower said there are areas of the community where micro transit makes sense, but Cedar Rapids believes riders would be “best served when it complements the fixed-route service.”
He said Marion has informed Cedar Rapids officials about plans to continue the agreement for fiscal 2023, but that some changes could come in the next budget year.
Marion distributed a public transit survey to residents in January. Now that the results are in, it helps move discussions along, Billings said.
Of the survey’s 346 total respondents — 282 living in the 52302 ZIP code and 124 taking a hard-copy survey on the Cedar Rapids Transit bus — 55 percent said they currently do not use public transportation. But the majority said they do or would use public transit to go to work, shopping and get to medical appointments.
In addition, 58 percent of respondents said they were unaware of Horizons after-hours service.
Of the respondents, 40 percent say they would prefer fixed-route public transit, 37 percent prefer the on-demand option and 24 percent said they would be open to either option.
It also has been discussed using about $225,000 of Marion’s $6 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to purchase three, 16-passenger buses for micro-transit. Waller said that’s yet to be determined.
“We got enough clarity with other ARPA projects where we have enough to allocate this year and next year when we get the second $3 million, we have more time to discuss and decide the transit purchases. There might be an option where it might still be relevant for additional equipment. It’s still a possibility, but there’s not a sense of urgency.
“We’re going to spend this next year with our partners to form a comprehensive solution that explores micro-transit as part of that,” Waller said. “I think it’s a very positive process and we don’t want to rush into this.”
Marissa Payne of The Gazette contributed to this report
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