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Wichita's Transit System Is About to Run Out of Money

Wichita's Transit System Is About to Run Out of Money
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Wichita Transit has seen better days. Over the past few years, like other transit operators around the country, the agency has raised fares and cut service in response to budget shortfalls. Still, its financial problems have persisted. Short-term cash injections from the city have kept the system afloat, but it's on track to run out of money by 2015.

Meanwhile, over this same period, city residents have repeatedly called for the transit system to expand. The public wants more frequent rush-hour service, a crosstown grid system that reduces travel time, longer operating hours, and route extensions in certain corridors. Those improvements would reportedly cost north of $25 million — twice the agency's current budget.

It's a difficult situation, to say the least. Wichita Transit chief Steve Spade, who arrived from Chapel Hill in late 2012 to tackle the problem, believes the first step toward resolving it is to establish a "predictable" funding source. The agency has crafted a vision plan and will soon begin a broader public discussion on turning that desire for fiscal stability into a reality.

"We need a source of funding that recognizes that transit costs are going to go up," Spade says. "A source of funding that puts us in a position that the system can grow as it's needed to grow."

Right now, Wichita Transit funding is predictable only in the sense that it keeps getting scarcer. The agency only captures about 20 percent of its operating costs at the farebox, and federal stimulus money that's helped in recent years has run out. Local property taxes are supposed to cover a major chunk of system costs, but that contribution has remained the same in real dollars over the past decade, losing purchasing power along the way.

That's a big problem, says Spade, because the basic costs of running the system go up about 5 or 6 percent a year from labor or fuel or maintenance costs alone. The city has given Wichita Transit some emergency financial assistance in recent years, but that's not a long-term solution, and expensive upgrades to the aging fleet can't be deferred much longer. At this point, says Spade, there's nothing left to cut that isn't a very essential service.

"You're getting into the bone really quick," he says.

So the only solution is a local funding source that doesn't drain away over time, like the city's property tax does. Wichita Transit isn't recommending any particular funding mechanism, but Spade has a sense of what will work best. He says local funding must be designed to grow annually to keep up with costs, and it should be spread across several sources to protect against economic downturns.

"Some thought needs to be given to having a diverse source," he says. "You don't want to put all your eggs in the property tax basket."

With stable funding in place, Wichita Transit can not only sustain its current service but begin the process of targeted expansion. The most obvious area for improvement is basic transit coverage. A 2011 Brookings report ranked Wichita a decent 35th among 100 large metros on overall transit access but only 66th on transit coverage. Spade would like to see the system reach the edge of the city limits.

At the very least, he says, Wichita Transit should keep up with the city's own growth and development. Right now, for instance, buses stop several miles short of a new retail center in the northwest part of the city. Making such connections will cost a bit more up front, but Spade believes that with a predictable funding mechanism in place those investments will pay off in terms of new riders.

Ultimately, though, Wichita residents will have to decide whether they're really willing to pay for the types of systems they tell public officials they want. "You can't say 'I want better service for less money,'" says Spade. "Those days are gone."

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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