In an effort to increase transit ridership, the Jefferson City Council recently weighed the pros and cons of temporarily suspending the $1 fare for city buses, making fixed routes completely free.
Proponents said it could increase ridership, and the bill’s sponsor, Councilman Jack Deeken, said “if nothing else, it was something good for our citizens to do” .
A temporary suspension is expected to result in the loss of approximately $39,000 in transportation revenue, and some council members, for example Councilor Mike Lester, said it should be accompanied by a detailed marketing plan on how to promote it.
Many council members expressed concern about the tariff suspension. The Transit Advisory Committee also opposed it, saying the fee was an important factor in sustaining the service. In fact, the committee has had discussions on the possible benefits of increasing the rate to $1.25 or $1.50.
“I also know and recognize that there are a lot of people using the transit system and it can become a financial burden for them,” said Angela Hirsch, chair of the Transit Advisory Committee.
Finally, council members held a vote on August 1 on whether to pass a six-month tariff suspension. After a count of 4-5, the bill failed. Council members Jon Hensley, Derrick Spicer, Deeken and Scott Spencer voted to suspend, and council members David Kemna, Lester, Mark Schreiber, Erin Wiseman, Ron Fizwater voted against. Council member Laura Ward was absent from the meeting.
The discussion and subsequent decision regarding local utility JeffTran and paratransit service Handiwheels is far from over. As City Council begins to review, revise and finalize the fiscal year 2023 budget, transit aspects will again come up.
In the previous two budget cycles, the city used money provided by the federal government through the CARES Act to subsidize public transit, significantly reducing what the city typically pays for it. The municipal grant is paid out of the general fund each year to finance operations. Instead of paying $1 million to $1.2 million each year, as the city has done in the past, about $579,700 was paid in fiscal year 2021 and about $187,000 in of the 2022 financial year.
Since one-time CARES funds have been fully utilized, about $1.2 million is expected to be directed to the transit division in the new fiscal year, according to a draft budget presented by the mayor in July.
At the Aug. 1 meeting, Hirsch urged the council to reconsider its mindset on transit.
“Well, now that that money is going, the city needs to step in again and support its transit system,” she said.
Hirsch said public transit is vital to the community because it provides service to people who don’t have personal transportation. She said it should also be prioritized as an opportunity for economic growth and community vitality.
“It increases access to employment for all citizens in the community, which leads to a higher tax bracket, a tax base. So all of these things lead to greater economic development and a more efficient economy. more robust and thriving for the local community,” Hirsch said.
She said it’s fundamental to transporting people to work.
“If we lose our public transit system, in a city of this size with such a large population…you’re going to lose your service industry, because so many in the service industry depend on public transit for their jobs” , she said.
Transit Director Mark Mehmert said the division had not recently asked if riders were using the service to get to work. Mehmert said a 2006 study found around 51% of runners used the service for this purpose.
“Based on the uniforms we see on the buses, we believe that most employed passengers are in the recreation and hospitality industry. Recreation and hospitality is Cole County’s fifth-largest industry in terms of but rank 14th (last) in terms of wages,” Mehmert said, citing information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Councilor Ron Fitzwater, who is chairman of the public works and planning committee, said he saw the value in a ‘legitimate service that we can afford, but we also cannot afford to continue to lose millions of dollars and more”.
He said closing the gap between income and expenditure will be a challenge in the upcoming budget.
“We can do the same thing (to transit) in 2023 as before, but we’re also sitting watching our roads crumble,” Fitzwater said. “And the people who don’t take the bus want to spend that money on better roads and keeping them in better shape. We have a parking lot that’s in terrible shape, and we’re going to need the money there.”
Fitzwater added: “We have to make cuts and where they have come in the past is in infrastructure, and now we are paying the price.”
Deeken said he sees the need for a transit system, but council will need to consider how it fits into the budget.
“This is my first budget cycle, and I’m really new to what goes in and out of public transit, a lot of it is subsidized by the federal government,” he said. “And we really have to look at how that can work within our budget.”
Lester said he understands the upcoming budget has concerns about a bigger grant for the city, but for some people it’s a lifesaver.
“I agree with what Angela Hirsch said,” Lester said. “It’s important as an economic aspect in the city because there are a lot of workers who use public transport to get to work. It’s important for those who use it.”
The first budget meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on August 11 at City Hall. At this meeting, the mayor and council will provide an overview of the budget as a whole.
Report: More public funds are needed to meet transit demands