Government

Evening bus service could be on the horizon in Cedar Rapids

A bus is parked at the Ground Transportation Center in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017.   (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
A bus is parked at the Ground Transportation Center in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Evening bus service could be coming to Cedar Rapids in fiscal 2021 — a service many have sought for years.

Buses would run two hours longer — essentially two additional round trips from the Ground Transportation Center — at the end of the day, pushing the end of service from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

If the plan moves forward, the evening-service launch would be sometime in summer 2020, said Brad DeBrower, Cedar Rapids transit manager.

July 1, 2020 is the beginning of fiscal 2021.

“Some people want it for jobs, others want it so they can do things after work,” DeBrower said. “It is a general flexibility for getting around — doctors. school, work.

“If busing is your source of transportation, you want it to run as long as possible and as frequently as possible.”

A 2016 transportation study identified evening service as a top need, and it consistently has come up at public forums and other venues.

DeBrower believes the plan could work without increasing the transit levy — which is 81 cents per $1,000 in property value, with a cap of 95 cents — by shifting capital and discretionary operating funds earmarked for replacing the oldest buses in the 30-bus fleet.

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Changes also would be needed to the LIFTS paratransit and Neighborhood Transportation Service after-hours program.

Shifting funding would be possible thanks to an infusion of $750,000 to $800,000 a year in federal transit dollars allocated by the Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization, or MPO. It is expected to cover 80 percent of the cost of two new buses for fixed route service and a paratransit bus in each of fiscal 2021 and fiscal 2022.

The transit division plans to continue replacing three buses each year for the foreseeable future to maintain a reliable fleet, DeBrower said.

While in the short term the federal aid frees money for evening service, DeBrower said the plan won’t proceed without a commitment from the MPO to fund bus replacements long term.

“I think we are in a position where this is doable,” DeBrower said of evening service. “But we need to see if it will go beyond four years.

“If we provide service extension, we want to do it long term. We don’t want to start it and stop a few years later.”

The MPO distributes roughly $4 million annually in federal transportation dollars to Linn County communities. The formula for how the money is divvied up changes every four or five years.

For fiscal 2021-24, 50 percent goes to roads, 30 percent to trails and 20 percent to transit, which would be the source for bus funding.

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As part of the MPO’s long-range transportation planning process, which is underway, the policy board must decide the funding model for years fiscal 2025-29. A pervious funding model directed 80 percent to trails, 20 to roads and zero to transit.

DeBrower will monitor the process.

Bill Micheel, MPO manager, said the MPO policy board has discussed the importance of public transit to the region, but decisions about the next funding model are up in the air.

“That’s why the funding formula is important because it drives where our money is going to go,” Micheel said.

Ashley Vanorny, a City Council member, said constituents have “resoundingly” asked for more public transit. It would benefit shift workers and could help with a sober-ride-home option as the night life and concert offerings in downtown Cedar Rapids expand, she said.

“A city should be easy to navigate whether or not you have a car,” she said.

The transit division has a $10.5 million budget and 57 full-time employees for Cedar Rapids, Marion and Hiawatha. Hours are from 5:15 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on weekdays and 8:15 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Saturdays.

The standard fare is $1.50 per ride. Several discounts are available, including half-price fares for seniors and students, monthly and day passes, and free service on Saturdays.

Ridership in fiscal 2018 climbed 6.7 percent over fiscal 2017, to 1.27 million rides. DeBrower attributed the uptick to route changes in 2017, which increased frequency on First Avenue E to pick ups every 15 minutes, along with other changes.

In addition to night service, the division also plans to concentrate more services and increase frequency on the highest use corridors without adding more buses or staff, he said.

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DeBrower could not say what the changes may look like. He noted public open houses to solicit feedback will be held before route changes go into effect.

l Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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