CORONAVIRUS

Pandemic takes toll on Cedar Rapids bus ridership

But city not planning to increase transit tax levy

The 2:13 p.m. departure 380 Express bus pulls away Tuesday after waiting for riders at the Ground Transportation Center
The 2:13 p.m. departure 380 Express bus pulls away Tuesday after waiting for riders at the Ground Transportation Center in Cedar Rapids. The Iowa City-to-Cedar Rapids service, launched in 2018 because of interstate construction, has seen a sharp drop in ridership during the pandemic. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Fewer people have turned to public transportation in the city as COVID-19 continues to spread, but federal funds have provided a safety net to help fill the revenue lost from a sharp drop in ridership.

Cedar Rapids Transit ridership declined about 20 percent in the 2020 budget year from fiscal 2019, according to Cedar Rapids Transit Manager Brad DeBrower.

Before the pandemic. ridership in the city was increasing. The division experienced a 6.2 percent bump in ridership to 933,048 rides from July 1, 2019 to March 15, 2020, compared with the same time period in the previous budget year.

Then COVID-19 upended the growth. From July 1 to Dec. 1 in fiscal 2021, the current budget year that ends June 30, ridership dropped about 60 percent to 220,610 rides compared to the same period a year earlier, DeBrower said.

The Corridor’s Cedar Rapids-to-Iowa City bus service, the 380 Express launched in late 2018 because of interstate construction, has also seen a sharp ridership fall during the pandemic.

The Cedar Rapids Transit division has suspended and reduced service as needed since businesses cut back or closed in response to community spread in March and again because of disruptions from the Aug. 10 derecho.

Cedar Rapids Transit bus capacity currently is capped at 15 riders and facial coverings are required while on the buses or inside the Ground Transportation Center.

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Cedar Rapids Transit has not collected fares since March. But fares provide only about 10 percent of the division’s budget, DeBrower said, so the lost revenue hasn’t devastated the system the way it has in larger metro areas like New York and Washington. Those transit systems weighed drastic cuts to service pending additional COVID-19 relief passed at the federal level.

The local property tax transit levy is the division’s biggest funding source, making up over 60 percent of its budget, DeBrower said. State and federal government funding covers the rest.

According to the city’s fiscal 2021 budget, the transit system is taking in $12.7 million but is operating at a loss of more than $1.7 million.

To avoid layoffs and plug the gap left by lost revenue from fares and some from the state, Cedar Rapids Transit has $8.1 million in federal CARES Act funds administered by the Federal Transit Administration to stretch over three years, DeBrower said.

“At this point, we’re hoping that this will kind of stem the tide for this current fiscal year, and then whatever we have will carry over into ’21 until hopefully (we have) some semblance of back to normalcy again,” he said.

DeBrower said the city is not asking for a transit levy increase nor will it ask for Marion and Hiawatha, whose residents also use the system, for a bump in their transit levies. The city’s fiscal 2021 budget already included an increase of 4 percent, or $23,000, to $574,000 in service charge revenue coming from Marion and Hiawatha.

The transit levy rate is about 81 cents per $1,000 of taxable assessed valuation on property. This revenue stream will produce $5.6 million through the budget year, according to the city.

“Who knows what will actually play out long term, but it’s our hope that we’re in a decent state to keep things as is now and get back to our pre-COVID level of service,” DeBrower said.

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Brock Grenis, transit planner and administrator with the East Central Iowa Council of Governments, which manages the 380 Express service, said there are enhanced cleaning and sanitizing procedures in place after each run and then daily.

The service is estimated to cost about $1.5 million annually from until 2025 and is covered by Iowa Department of Transportation funds to reduce traffic during construction on the Interstate 80/I-380 interchange project.

The service suspended fares from mid-April through June, he said, but “even with that drop we experienced that made the revenue lower than expected, we’re still able to cover the entire cost for this year.”

Ridership of the 380 Express was up to more than 6,000 in January and February before COVID-19 disruptions, an average boost of nearly 30 percent from those months in 2019. From March through November, however, ridership fell nearly 55 percent to 29,770 compared with the same 2019 time frame.

“We do expect the ridership to go back up throughout next year and that will better return the revenue levels to a more normal level that we experienced prior to the COVID slowdown,” Grenis said.

Comments: (319) 398-8494; marissa.payne@thegazette.com

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