May 19, 2024

Keeping Media and Government Accountable.

How much will “free” bus service eventually cost Lawrence taxpayers?

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There’s no such thing as a “free lunch”, but a year-long pilot program in the City of Lawrence next year promises free bus service with the possibility of eliminating future fares entirely, following approval by the City Commission.

Pandemic relief funding will cover the lost fare revenue, some $273,000 last year, for 2023, with increased federal transit dollars a more long-term solution to keep the program running, according to Lawrence Transit and Parking Manager Adam Weigel.

Bus service in the city is funded by local transit sales tax revenue, state and federal transit funds, and fare revenue. A one-way ride costs $1.00; those eligible for reduced fares pay $.50. Paratransit and Night Line Service is $2.00 one-way. Children five and younger ride free.

Weigel said several factors contributed to the idea of free bus service:

  • Ridership has not fully recovered from pandemic impacts that began in March 2020. Fare-free programs in other communities have resulted in ridership increases of 20%- 60%. If Lawrence experiences a similar increase, this would have a significant positive impact on several Strategic Plan Progress Indicators, particularly CC-9 and CC-11, which aim to increase transit ridership and shift travelers toward more sustainable modes of transportation.
  • Fare free has a greater impact on people in our community who have less income. To advance community goals around equity, eliminating bus fare can make a tangible difference for many riders.
  • Eliminating bus fares injects money back into the local economy. Riders spending $400-$1,000 per year on bus fares today can instead invest those dollars back into their family, their homes, food, health care, and retail in Lawrence.
  • Without fares, bus drivers can speed up service without pausing to verify reduced fare eligibility, fill out transfer slips, or manage conflicts that can result from issues at the fare box.
  • The cost and time investment from staff to process fares limits the ability to adequately resource other project and process priorities.

We asked Mr. Weigel a series of questions about the new program:

“The story in the Journal-World mentioned this program has been discussed for several years. Why now, and how much of a role did funding stemming from the pandemic and the recent infrastructure bill play in the timetable? Will sources other than taxes fill in the gap after 2026?”

“The influx of one-time and ongoing formula funds increases do make this a financially feasible effort to advance now that has not been there in the past. We’ll be evaluating continuation of the program in late 2023, so I’m not sure where we will be with fare-free in 2026. If we have extended it through that time, it will depend on how much expenditures and revenues have increased to determine if additional sources of revenue will be needed. The community will also have the option to reinstate fares to keep service levels the same, or reduce service levels to keep the fare-free program in place, so that will be a community conversation.” 

“How will Lawrence Transit navigate around issues other cities have faced with eliminating fares, such as overcrowding, disruptive passengers, unhappy bus operators, more fossil-fuel energy needed to run buses, preference among riders for improved service quality as opposed to fare elimination, as well as the market indicators fares provide, such as when and where service is most highly valued and resources are needed?”

“Fare-free service comes with anticipated benefits as well as challenges, some of which you list here. Our team is prepared to monitor these challenges and respond to them to deliver a highly used, quality transit system in Lawrence. To use one of your examples, we won’t know the scope of the overcrowding challenge until we try to implement the program. We are acting courageously, with the confidence that we have dedicated, smart team members who are ready to adjust as needed to meet the expectations of people living in and visiting Lawrence.”

“Do KU students pay bus fares? If so, what portion funds the joint city-university bus program?”

“KU students do not pay a fare to ride the bus, instead showing their student ID to ride for free. Student fees fund KU transit vehicles and service, while the City funds its service with dedicated sales tax, state funds, and federal funds. Current routes 11 & 12 are jointly funded by the City and KU due to how those routes serve campus and the community throughout the year. Routes 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 15, and 27 are funded and operated by the City, and KU funds and operates routes 30, 34, 36, 38, 42, 43, 44, and 53.”

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