Taking away the IndeBus intracity bus service in Independence would take away a lifeline for many and have a ripple on the city as a whole, riders and advocates say.
While city officials are scrambling to avoid cutting IndeBus routes within the city, the requirement to present a balanced proposed budget this week led to that current proposal, Mayor Eileen Weir said Wednesday.
Several bus riders and others explained during a City Council Transportation Policy Committee meeting how the bus service is vital to their lives or the people they work with.
The city plans to keep its paratransit service and RideKC service from the depot next to Square into Kansas City. The six routes on the chopping block fan out from the depot to dozens of points within Independence.
The six routes carry about 185,000 riders annually – total, not unique – according to city staff. Cutting them saves the city about $825,000 in the general fund, which covers a variety of services.
Mary Jane Tyra, who uses a wheelchair, said she moved to Independence from a small town that did not have a public transit.
“I chose Independence because of the bus system, and now you’re taking that away,” she said. “Everybody that works with the system sees (the need). If you take the routes away, I’m limited to about one-fourth of the city.”
Tyra said paratransit service would not be as convenient for certain errands as regular bus service. She wishes the city could expand it to include later hours and Sundays, allowing her to get to church or perhaps a council meeting.
Citizens Sheryl Frank and Renee Roby, who are both legally blind, said cutting bus service not only harms residents like them but also their destinations, where often they would spend money.
“You’re not only hurting citizens, but also hurting businesses,” Frank said. “I know everything’s important now, but I would hate to lose this.”
“When I use paratransit, I have to wait a certain time to schedule the next pickup,” Roby said. “It seems like it would hurt the city a lot if we can’t get to where we need to go.”
Debi Laufer and Amber Bauer from the Community Services League spoke of the many vulnerable citizens they work with who rely on buses to get to jobs, errands and other appointments.
“Bus service is certainly their lifeline,” Bauer said, and taking it away from such people, “it would be a downfall from there.”
Nanette Willoughby, a commissioner of the Independence Housing Authority, spoke on behalf of many public housing residents who rely on the buses and are “very upset.”
“To not have a service available to them is very concerning, to say the least,” she said.
Council Member Scott Roberson wondered aloud if coupon books for regular riders could be employed as a way to raise some revenue. He also asked if, given that federal dollars are part of transit service, if using paratransit buses that are not full for regular bus riders would be allowed. Tom Scannell, director of community development, said he would look into that.
Some council members have suggested using extra federal Community Development Block Grant funds to partially cover bus service this year.
“We’ve been looking at this being a deficit, but something we want to have,” Council Member Tom Van Camp said. “It seems to me a stopgap measure just prolongs this and puts this on the same timetable.”
Mayor Weir and other city officials have been talking with the Kansas City Area Transit Authority about trying to get funding through the federal CARES Act and putting together a long-term regional solution regarding public transportation.
“Bus service has never been meant to stand on its own,” Roberson said, “and we don’t want to take service away from those who need it most. Either we have to twist some arms at ATA, or find some other way.”
City staff calculated that IndeBus service cost the city $6.16 per mile in the current fiscal year and will continue to slowly rise. Rider fares cover 42 cents of that this year, and federal funds cover another $2.46, leaving $3.28 for the city to cover, and that latter figure has risen from $2.84 three years ago.
Weir said the broader discussion of how to provide public transportation in the city is for another day and emphasized how the current proposal is on the table because the pandemic created a large revenue shortfall and the city had to prepare a balanced budget this week – and has to approve one June 15.
“Unfortunately this is a big-ticket item, and there’s no other place in the budget that equalled that amount of dollars without reducing public safety staff,” Weir said, “which of course during these times we certainly cannot afford.
“I do not support reduction of bus service,” she said. “We were forced to reduce some routes (last year) to fund retiree health insurance. I was disappointed we had to do that, and it was the council’s intention to restore that, and then COVID happened and put us in a totally different reality.”
Bus service is not a matter of importance, she said, but simply lack of funding, and “we have to come up with the money.”