Independence officials have gotten out their maps and started looking at bus lines designed to upgrade service and rein in rising costs.

Independence officials have gotten out their maps and started looking at bus lines designed to upgrade service and rein in rising costs.

That might even include a system run by someone other than the Kansas City Area Transit Authority.

“This is not a done deal. This is a conversation starter,” City Manager Robert Heacock said Wednesday.

The city is looking at the half-dozen routes – red, purple, blue, others – that run within the city. Routes such as 24X running to downtown Kansas City would be unaffected.

One of the main problems is that about one-third of the $900,000 that the city pays the ATA every year is, as Heacock describes it, not providing any service to riders because that covers the time that buses are headed – empty – to and from Kansas City at the beginnng and the end of the day. He suggests putting a bus barn in Independence to reduce that cost.

“Whatever they think might work, we’re open to dialogue,” he said.

He said the city wants to hold its own funding levels for bus service steady, make improvements to the system where possible and not raise fares.

But costs are rising. With the current routes, the ATA projects that the city’s costs will rise $300,000 in the fiscal year that starts July 1, 2012 – money that otherwise would go for basic services. Heacock wants to hold the city’s share steady.

Some of the ideas that officials discussed Wednesday included:

n Enhanced service at Metropolitan Community College-Blue River, so students can make their 8 a.m. classes.

n Making some routes into loops instead of going out and back from the transit center just off the Square. The transit center would still be focal point for all routes.

n Shifting the orange route in northwest Independence to “flex service.” A rider would call a day ahead and be picked up at his home and taken to either another spot in northwest Independence or to the transit center to catch another bus. Someone who needed a ride every day – maybe to get to work – could make a standing appointment.

Many residents in that area are elderly, and officials say walking a few blocks to the nearest bus stop can be obstacle and has reduced riders on the current orange route. Many of those riders are thought to be using Dial-a-Ride, a more costly option for the city. The city also is looking at the flex service idea in the Sterling Avenue area between 23rd Street and 39th Street. Raytown and Lee’s Summit use the flex service approach.

n Possibly scaling back stops at the Wal-Mart on U.S. 40 – in effect, an Independence subsidy for a business in Kansas City, Heacock says.  

n Service in the Little Blue River valley, where the extension of the Little Blue Expressway to U.S. 24 next spring is expected to open things up for commercial and residential development. “One of the first things those businesses are going to ask: ‘Is it on the bus line?’” Heacock said.

“We’re trying to make the system better. We’re not trying to cut the service,” Heacock said.

Officials plan to keep looking at costs and options and, if the City Council committee studying the issue agrees, solicit the public’s thoughts. If the City Council procedes, it would put its new routes out for a contract – the KCATA would be invited to bid – and the council would have to sort out those offers and make a decision before the end of the year. The city is looking at a five-year contract that would start July 1, 2012.

Heacock has been meeting with ATA officials, explaining the city’s budget and service concerns.

“They’ve been very open to this process,” he said.

Council Members Jim Schultz and Myron Paris both said the plans laid out so far look good but that they want to hear from riders about the best options.

“I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of ideas we come up with in the future,” Paris said,

WHAT'S NEXT: The City Council committee looking at bus issues meets at 3 p.m. next Thursday in conference room D at City Hall, 111 Maple Ave., just east of the Square. Several members of the public attended Wednesday’s meeting, and city staff listened to their comments and answered questions.