Government

Bus planners see broader service even without taxing agency

Study underlying Cedar Rapids bus revamp suggested considering authority

Karter Corcran of Marion pays his fare Thursday as he gets on the Route 20 bus as he makes his way to downtown Cedar Rapids from the Marion Walmart. Several stops east of Highway 13 were added to the route in the most recent restructuring of the Cedar Rapids Transit system. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Karter Corcran of Marion pays his fare Thursday as he gets on the Route 20 bus as he makes his way to downtown Cedar Rapids from the Marion Walmart. Several stops east of Highway 13 were added to the route in the most recent restructuring of the Cedar Rapids Transit system. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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 CEDAR RAPIDS — Creating a regional authority to run public bus service — and collect taxes to pay for improvements — won’t happen any time soon, local planners have decided.

But while a full-fledged regional transit authority doesn’t appear to be a good fit for Linn County, planners say, officials are looking at other ways of enhancing public transit in the Cedar Rapids metro area.

“It just didn’t appear as if we were quite ready to go to that RTA,” said Bill Micheel, assistant director with Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization. “We’re just kind of on the edge of where it starts to make some sense. ... I think we can get a lot of benefits of a RTA without actually going that full measure.”

TRANSIT DEBATE

It was a 2016 Corridor Metropolitan Study — which led to the first major restructuring of Cedar Rapids Transit bus routes in 15 years — that recommended a look into creating a regional transit authority.

Among the most common requests, the study found, was nighttime and Sunday service — things the restructuring didn’t accomplish and still are on the wish list.

The first phase of the regional authority discussion, which cost about $25,000 and was conducted by an advisory commission, concluded that Cedar Rapids Transit can find a middle ground between such an entity and the status quo.

Under a regional transit authority, all services, including paratransit services like Linn County LIFTS, would be managed under a single umbrella, which could result in a cost savings. An appointed board would govern the service, which would be funded through a transit tax levy collected in participating communities.

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“The trick there is now you have a separate level of government making tax decisions for all communities,” Micheel said, adding that levy caps also could limit expanded services provided by a regional authority.

More than 90 percent of Cedar Rapids Transit services exist in Cedar Rapids, but routes extend into Marion and Hiawatha.

Max Freund / The Gazette

Contributors to Cedar Rapids Transit’s $10.1 million fiscal 2018 budget included:

- $5.15 million from Cedar Rapids

- $2.7 million from the Federal Transit Administration

- $918,000 from fares and advertising

- $580,000 from the Iowa Department of Transportation

- $320,000 from Marion

- $120,000 from Hiawatha

Contributions from Marion and Hiawatha have been increasing since the 2016 study, with Marion paying nearly $400,000 to Cedar Rapids Transit this current fiscal year, said Marion City Manager Lon Pluckhahn. The increases were proposed when the study concluded neither Marion nor Hiawatha were paying enough.

Micheel said the existing funding structure isn’t perfect — Cedar Rapids Transit services outside the city limits are bound to the funding provided by participating communities.

“On the flip side, Marion and Hiawatha have no direct oversight of transit services in their community and need to rely on what’s up to this point really been handshake agreements, as opposed to formalized agreements,” Micheel added.

THE DECISION

With pros and cons on both sides of the argument, the committee decided not to pursue a regional transit authority, opting instead to strengthen agreements between participating communities to enhance services and establish more structured funding.

“One of the things we know people want is expanded service, in particular evening, night service and weekend service. But of course we’re dealing with the zero-sum game in terms of resources,” Micheel said. “We know there’s a desire there, so how do we provide that service and not blow the budget up?”

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Cedar Rapids Transit Manager Brad DeBrower said one of the most important changes would be to formalize agreements with Marion and Hiawatha, which would become bigger participants in planning discussions.

“I think the biggest thing that’s going to come out of this is going to be to establish a planning body that really would create a forum for discussing what level of service we’re going to want in the metropolitan area,” DeBrower said.

Marion officials a few years ago considered a direct route between the downtowns of Marion and Cedar Rapids, to add another service to the area, but scrapped the idea over cost concerns.

Restructured routes following the 2016 study did create a circulator route that covers a large swath of Marion, which Pluckhahn said has proved successful so far.

“It increased not only how far out we could get in the community, but it increased the number of times buses go by every stop,” he said.

It’s unclear how a regional transit authority would shape future routes, but Pluckhahn said the hope is more regular conversations on transit from a regional standpoint should make for better services.

“For communities like Marion, where we’re continuing to grow … transit needs to be a part of that discussion too,” he said.

Hiawatha Mayor Bill Bennett said he’s encouraged by the decision, adding that expanded bus routes and services are important, as long as they are properly researched.

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“I wouldn’t say that a RTA is completely out of the realm of possibility, but we’re going to be more careful putting this together,” Bennett said. “I think we’re going to put a plan together that makes sense for today and the near future and we’re going to continue to monitor this.”

Future discussions, which span beyond just Cedar Rapids, Marion and Hiawatha, could someday include expanded services into other communities like Robins.

“I think it would be an opportunity to look at how we could provide public transit for Robins, but I think we also need to take a look at what the economic cost of what that would be and how that would interface with the entire system,” Robins Mayor Chuck Hinz said.

TRANSIT IN OTHER COMMUNITIES

Iowa’s only existing regional transit authority, the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority, or DART, was created 12 years ago and originally included representatives from 18 communities and Polk County.

Amanda Wanke, chief external affairs officer with DART, said a few communities since have dropped out of the service, leaving the commission at 14 members.

“The cities that chose to withdraw are smaller communities that had little to no service,” she said.

The commission currently is in the process of recalibrating short-term and long-term service plans for the region.

Wanke said the creation of a regional transit authority there has been largely successful, allowing for more seamless services between all participating communities.

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“Having a regional system allows us to plan for the future as a region, and allows us to plan well into the future for routes across different communities,” Wanke said. “We didn’t have a long range plan before DART was formed.”

Iowa City in the midst of a study of area bus services and routes, though a regional transit authority is not currently being discussed. But the study will take into account how the area’s three fixed-service providers — Iowa City, Coralville and the University of Iowa — interact.

By Iowa Code, only counties with populations in excess of 175,000 people may create a regional transit district.

With more than 216,000 residents, Linn County is the only county in the state, outside of Polk, large enough to create such a district.

l Comments: (319) 398-8309; mitchell.schmidt@thegazette.com

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