IOWA CITY

No bus fares, adding Sunday service on the table as Iowa City evaluates transit system

An Iowa City Transit bus sits Jan 30, 2018, at a stop on Washington Street in Iowa City. The city has authorized a sweeping study of its transit system, and the city of Coralville and the University of Iowa will participate also. (The Gazette)
An Iowa City Transit bus sits Jan 30, 2018, at a stop on Washington Street in Iowa City. The city has authorized a sweeping study of its transit system, and the city of Coralville and the University of Iowa will participate also. (The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Sunday service. Expanded hours. Zero fares.

Iowa City is considering substantial changes to its transit system — including the possibility of adding those — as it embarks on a nearly yearlong study of the decades old service.

“We’re evaluating virtually every aspect of our transit system,” said Darian Nagle-Gamm, Transportation Services director. “We think it’s long overdue. We think it will help us to re-imagine our transit system for the next generation.”

Earlier this month, the Iowa City Council agreed to hire Nelson Nygaard Consulting Associates to undertake a comprehensive operations analysis of its transit system.

The city also entered into a cost-sharing agreement with Coralville and the University of Iowa so the study can encompass their transit systems also. Iowa City will be responsible for 65 percent of the cost of the $225,666 study — $146,683 — while the UI will cover 25 percent and Coralville will pick up the remaining 10 percent on the tab.

“I am thrilled that we are moving ahead with this study,” Iowa City Mayor Jim Throgmorton said last week. “We’ve wanted to do it for quite some time. Great firm. Great purpose. Great collaboration.”

Nagle-Gamm said the study fits within the city’s climate action plan and desire to double ridership by 2028.

In fiscal 2019, Iowa City Transit provided nearly 1.5 million rides, Nagle-Gamm said. The Gazette reported in June that ridership in Iowa City, Coralville and on the UI campus has fallen between 17 and 22 percent over five years.

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“That’s an aggressive goal,” she said of plans to double ridership, “but we’d like to see what it’d take to get to that.”

Nagle-Gamm said the study will entail a “deep dive” into all aspects of the city’s transit system. Every stop and every route will be evaluated, and service times and coverage areas analyzed.

Potential changes to Iowa City’s transit system could include adding Sunday service — the transit system currently only operates Monday through Saturday — as well as eliminating fares, Nagle-Gamm said.

“More communities are evaluating zero-fare systems today because if the end goal is to increase ridership, really, you want to remove as many barriers as possible,” she said. “Fares are one of those barriers. Through various funding mechanisms, (those communities) found ways to fund zero-fare systems. We’re very excited to dive into that and see if that is indeed a possibility.”

Nagle-Gamm added that fares make up a small portion of the transit system’s revenues and it relies upon support from the federal government, like all other public transit systems. Iowa City Transit also supported through property taxes.

The study also will kick off the city’s likely conversion to electric buses, which Nagle-Gamm said are cleaner, greener and cost less to maintain than the traditional buses now in use.

Coralville will not be considering the level of wholesale changes to its transit system that Iowa City is exploring, but will use the study as somewhat of a performance review of the current system, said City Administrator Kelly Hayworth.

“All three systems have seen declines in ridership over the years,” he said. “Also, with all kinds of different road projects and things that have changed in our immediate region, we need to do a better job of coordinating between our systems. We’re hoping to make sure we have all of our routes so they can be on time, so they can match up with the other two systems and make sure all of the connections are made. ... We really look at it as a tweaking of what we’re already doing, making sure our on-time performance can increase.”

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UI officials were not available to discuss which aspects of their system they wish to evaluate. Cambus is free to ride and funded in part by student fees.

Cambus manager Brian McClatchey said in a statement they look forward to coordinating with Iowa City and Coralville and “exploring potential opportunities.”

“Cambus regularly evaluates services to find ways to improve rider satisfaction and convenience, as well as efficiencies to reduce costs,” he said. “The study is a great opportunity for a comprehensive review of public transit and to continue our commitment to serving our riders in the best possible way.”

In 2015-2016, Cedar Rapids’ transit system was evaluated as part of a study conducted by the Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization, said Brad DeBrower, the city’s transit manager.

After a roughly nine-month study with considerable public input, Cedar Rapids began implementing changes in summer 2017.

DeBrower said changes included increasing how frequently buses traveled on heavily-used corridors. On First Avenue, which accounts for 20-25 percent of all ridership in the city, stops between downtown and Lindale Mall that were once visited every 30 minutes now pick up every 15 minutes. DeBrower said routes were shifted to eliminate “meandering” through low ridership areas to better serve neighborhoods with higher ridership.

The result was a 6 percent increase in ridership from 1,185,726 in fiscal 2017 to 1,265,721 in fiscal 2018, DeBrower said.

“We think the changes were well-received,” he said.

Ridership was down slightly in FY18, but DeBrower said that’s likely associated with the brutally cold temperatures earlier this year.

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More changes are on the way for bus riders in Cedar Rapids. DeBrower said the city is tweaking bus routes again next week. He also hopes to propose a two-hour expansion of service hours to keep the buses running until 9 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Nagle-Gamm said she plans to meet with the consultant team and partnering transit agencies by the end of August, with the hopes of the study kicking off once students return to campus. The entire study is expected to last nine to 10 months. Nagle-Gamm said recommendations could be up for evaluation by next summer and implementation of those changes could happen next fall at the earliest.

“The communities going through these comprehensive operations analyses are communities that are increasing their ridership,” she said. “We’re hoping that trend holds true for us, as well.”

• Comments: (319) 339-3155; lee.hermiston@thegazette.com

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