Staff Columnist

'380 Express' offers comfy ride - but at what cost?

Local leaders say we need more buses, but many seats remain empty

The new 380 Express bus is seen at a preview ride for local officials and DOT representatives at the Ground Transportation Center in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Sept. 28, 2018. The new commuter route, which launches Monday, will take riders between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City with onboard amenities like free WiFi and electrical charging ports. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
The new 380 Express bus is seen at a preview ride for local officials and DOT representatives at the Ground Transportation Center in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Sept. 28, 2018. The new commuter route, which launches Monday, will take riders between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City with onboard amenities like free WiFi and electrical charging ports. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

As an avowed skeptical of taxpayer-funded transportation projects, I have to admit I enjoyed my ride on the new corridor bus service this week.

The 380 Express bus debuted this month connecting Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, a bid to relieve congestion on Interstate 380 during construction of a new interchange on Interstate 80 over the next five years. At $3.50 for a one-way trip, the route hits stops in downtown Iowa City, University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, Coralville’s Iowa River Landing, Kirkwood Community College and downtown Cedar Rapids.

I rode the bus from my home in Iowa City to work at The Gazette’s headquarters in Cedar Rapids and back. It was clean, spacious enough for a short person and the Wi-Fi worked reasonably well. My one minor complaint about the experience is the public radio station was playing too loud.

Only a handful of passengers shared the bus on my trips between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. There were a few UIHC workers, one Kirkwood student and an elderly couple with suitcases. Figures from the East Central Iowa Council of Governments show the route attracted about 100 passengers per day during its first two weeks in operation. That’s on pace with the group’s early goals, though officials hope ridership will grow as awareness spreads.

On the downside, commuting by car takes about 40 minutes, while the bus ride is a full hour. I’m fortunate to live and work within walking distance of the bus stops, but after you add in 10-minute walks on each side, getting to work ends up taking twice as long on the bus. If you have to walk farther or take a separate city bus to get to the 380 Express pickup spot, the calculus becomes even less favorable.

The reality is Iowans’ homes and workplaces aren’t as densely organized as in communities where public transit has higher participation rates. In Iowa, it’s often easier to steer our two-ton personal transporters where we need to go than to share a ride.

With the price of fuel below $3 per gallon, my 60-mile round trip to the newsroom and back in my hybrid car is at least $1 cheaper than the two bus fares. Since I usually only go to Cedar Rapids for work two or three days a week, a discounted monthly pass doesn’t make sense for me.

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Even if 380 Express ridership doubles or triples, fares will not come close to covering even half the $1.5 million in state funds needed to operate the bus annually.

Meanwhile, Iowa City is planning a study of its transit operations, with the goal of doubling ridership over 10 years, cutting carbon emissions and exploring regional transit opportunities with our neighboring communities. Currently, a little over $1 million in fare revenue covers only a fraction of the transit system’s $4.5 million budget. Expanded service would require more investment, and there even is discussion of eliminating fares.

Of course, all modes of transportation get hefty government subsidies. Buses’ deficits shouldn’t necessarily be deal-breakers. But if Eastern Iowa has unmet demand for mass transit like policymakers say, consumers can vote with their seats. Take the bus and show your support.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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