Cities in the Corridor look to keep momentum as public transit grows

Iowa has experienced 5 percent growth since 2010

(The Gazette)
(The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Sue Tritle doesn’t drive and takes the public bus five or six times a week.

She has done so for about 10 years, first in Cedar Rapids and now in Iowa City. In recent years, though, it’s gotten harder to find a seat at peak times, the 56-year-old Iowa City woman said.

“It seems like early in the morning, noonish and the early evening, you might not get a seat, so you stand and grab onto a handle,” she said while waiting for Iowa City’s Lakeside bus Tuesday.

Tritle’s trips are among the nearly 2 million taken annually with the Iowa City Transit system, one of the busiest systems in Iowa.

Public transit ridership has been climbing in Iowa City and across the state, a trend some officials want to see continue even with uncertainty about what the future holds for transportation funding.

Iowa City and Coralville are offering free fare this Friday for rider appreciation day, which is part of Iowa’s Department of Transportation’s Ride Transit Week this week.

Cedar Rapids is encouraging ridership through regular promotions: free fare Saturdays and free rides for people with Freedom Festival buttons until July 4.

Thursday also is the ninth annual National Dump the Pump Day, which encourages people to leave the car at home and ride the bus.

Iowa has seen public transit use grow 5 percent since 2010, up to 27.4 million annual riders across the state’s 35 public transit systems in fiscal 2013, which ended last June.

The trend is even more pronounced in some parts of Eastern Iowa.

Cedar Rapids, Coralville and the University of Iowa’s free Cambus system each have seen increases of 14 percent since 2010. Iowa City is similar to the state average with about 5 percent growth in that time.

Transit managers point to a desire to be “green,” live healthier and save money as some of the reasons for the increase.

“It’s cheaper to ride the bus than to use a car and pay for parking,” said Brian McClatchey, manager of UI Cambus.

McClatchey attributes some of the growth in Johnson County to a bus monitoring application called Bongo, which riders can access from their mobile phones or computers. Bongo allows people to check on a bus’ location and expected arrival time.

In Cedar Rapids, if ridership continues to increase, officials have discussed reconfiguring the bus system and possibly adding more trips on busier routes, said Brad DeBrower, public transit manager.

The city already has tried to meet demand by overhauling the fleet of 30 buses. Eighteen have been replaced in the last four years, and four more are slated for replacement at the end of this year.

“They are cleaner, quieter and more comfortable for passengers and drivers,” DeBrower said.

Still, the other eight buses in the system have exceeded their recommended life span. At a cost of $390,000 per bus, even with the city providing only a 20 percent match, those eight buses will be used as spares until funding becomes available, DeBrower said.

Michelle McEnany, director of public transit for the Iowa DOT, called Iowa’s ridership healthy but said it’s limited by funding shortfalls, at a Transportation Commission meeting earlier this month.

“If we were able to invest $130 million, we’d get choice riders and we’d really become a public transit state,” she said. “There’s many unmet needs in rural areas.”

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