In August, 2011, Independence issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) to operate their local transit routes and local para-transit service, Dial-A-Ride. The local or “intra-city” routes are currently operated by KCATA and are the routes identified by colors as well as numbers. The inter-city routes connecting Independence with Kansas City would continue to be operated by KCATA.
Independence redesigned its local routes to cover more miles and extend service hours. Of course, longer routes without adding more buses means the time between buses increases, which creates longer waiting times for riders. So service miles and service hours may increase but service level will decrease. Independence also wants to “brand” its buses with a unique Independence design. (Prototype of branded buses from the RFP Inde Bus)
Several proposals were received, and in October the city staff made a preliminary recommendation to the City Council Transit Committee. They recommended First Transit over KCATA as operator for the local routes. The Transit Committee recommendation to the full City Council is planned in December because a final decision has to be made by February 1, 2012, in order to implement the desired changes by July 1, 2012.
Transit Action Network understands and appreciates the financial realities Independence faces to maintain transit service for its residents, as well as its right to contract for the most cost-effective transit service. The Independence budget for transit comes out of general revenue. Independence does not have dedicated transit funding like Kansas City, nor do they have taxing authority from the state to even ask for a dedicated transit tax. Their ½ cent transportation sales tax is all used for streets. Like most Eastern Jackson County municipalities, Independence has been waiting for the county to get involved in funding transit. County transit funding was the original promise of the regional “Smart Moves” transit concept nearly a decade ago. But county funding hasn’t materialized yet, and general revenue has declined as costs continued to rise, and something had to give. Independence has assured TAN that its goal is to provide the best transit service they can.
Several snags have arisen, however. The biggest one deals with the allocation of federal “formula” funds for transit in this region. As the Congressionally created transit authority for the Kansas City region, KCATA is the federally designated recipient of federal formula funds, and that means KCATA decides how this money is to be allocated around the region. Legally they do not have to allocate any funds to municipalities that don’t contract with them, but historically KCATA has allocated funds to other operators, such as Johnson County Transit, a well as the municipalities that contract with them. The current annual federal formula fund allocation is approximately $15 million, but may decrease based on Congressional action. Independence believes it has a right to a share of this money, even if it goes with a private contractor.
Even if the KCATA Board wants to continue to allocate a share of the federal formula funds to Independence, it may be illegal if they contract with a private operator. This issue arises because federal transit law has a section that protects transit employees who are affected by federal transit funding. If Independence changes to a private operator there could be a negative impact on public transit workers. Based on the current allocation of money, this law (Section 13(c)) could lose Independence $600,000. All parties have their lawyers looking into the implications of Section 13(c).
Another big issue is the effect on the para-transit riders in Independence if a different operator gets the contact for the intra-city routes. TAN is concerned that para-transit users wanting to go between Independence and Kansas City would have more transfers and higher costs if KCATA does not operate the intra-city routes. If Independence para-transit riders have to use both the Independence Dial-A-Ride and KCATA Share-A-Fare services for the same trip, the cost would double from $4 for the round trip to $8. Independence City Manager Robert Heacock said that Independence could consider picking up the additional cost for para-transit riders needing to go to KCMO. At an average of 12,000 rides to the city per year, this could amount to an additional cost of $48,000 for the city, but the inconvenience for riders would still be present.
Most important, TAN has significant concerns about the impact another operator could have on all transit riders. Unless Independence gives careful attention to “seamless transit” principles, adding another transit provider could cause complexity, confusion and additional cost for riders, and that would both inhibit ridership and limit access to opportunities throughout the region, while undermining the goal of a truly regional transit system. We have discussed our concerns regarding seamless transit with elected officials including Council member Gragg, Chair of the Transit Committee, and with City staff.
What is “Seamless Transit?” It’s the term being used in a regional effort to make transit easier to use, thereby building ridership and enabling more people to have access to opportunities throughout the region. Seamless transit is achieved by meeting basic rider expectations and eliminating the impact of multiple transit operators on the transit experience.
Some of the seamless expectations that TAN has discussed with Independence include:
1. A uniform fare structure, and transfer and pass reciprocity. Independence has assured TAN that they will use the same fare structure and compatible fareboxes as KCATA so that transfers and monthly passes are accepted on both systems. They have told us they could do an allocation of revenue between the two systems at the end of the month for passes, although the details haven’t been discussed, since an operator hasn’t been chosen.
2. Good connectivity between the two systems is another concern. TAN has been told schedules will be adjusted to co-ordinate transfer locations and schedule times so inter-system connections can be made effectively.
3. Currently riders only have to make one phone call to get transit information. They can use Google transit to do online trip planning, and with GPS on all the current buses, real-time information is becoming available via cell phone or mobile device. TAN has asked that these seamless communication features be available to Independence riders if there is a change in operators, but has not been given any reassurances .
To get more details of the planned route changes or read the minutes of the meetings visit the Independence City Council Transit Committee website
Seamless transit issues between JCT and KCATA prompted TAN to get the MARC Transit Committee to form a Seamless Transit Work Group last year. (TAN’s Seamless Transit In the Kansas City Region document) Now many of the same issues will need to be addressed with Independence if it changes operators for its intra-city routes.