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Cab service program takes shape

Transit Committee anticipates roll out in early February
Yellow Cab of Iowa City offered the sole proposal to the City of North Liberty for its planned demand-response cab service. The city’s Transit Committee accepted the proposal during its Dec. 20 meeting, and recommends approval by the North Liberty City Council as early as Jan. 8. (photo courtesy of Yellow Cab of Iowa City)

NORTH LIBERTY– Among the many introductions North Liberty residents can expect in 2019 will be a demand-response cab service for its transit-dependent population.

The City of North Liberty submitted a request for proposal (RFP) for a subsidized transportation service to all local cab companies last fall, and during its Dec. 20 meeting, the Transit Committee unanimously accepted the sole vendor proposal, submitted by Yellow Cab of Iowa City. Along with a series of discussion points provided by the Transit Committee, the proposal is recommended for approval by the city council as early as Jan. 8, with the program anticipated for implementation by Feb. 1 or 15.

Service details

The anticipated demand-response cab service intends to liberate the transit-dependent population from the restrictions of bus route scheduling, allowing them to call for taxi service at will and be picked up right at their doorstep for essential trips in the Iowa City area.

Only North Liberty residents 18 and over, or children with an adult chaperone would be permitted to use the service. This includes seniors, defined as 62 and older; low income individuals, defined as those who participate in a state or federal assistance program; and mobility-impaired individuals unable to drive permanently, or who are temporarily restricted from driving based on a signed statement from a medical or other professional provider.

Riders would be required to present an ID card upon pickup; the city will likely provide several points for citizens to obtain the cards.

The service is expected to go anywhere in North Liberty, to western Coralville (specifically Coral Ridge Mall, where riders could board buses to Iowa City) and to Tiffin medical facilities (particularly the city’s new physical therapy office). Users will be able to take trips to and from the North Liberty Community Food Pantry, grocery stores, medical appointments, urgent care facilities, financial institutions, medical facilities, pharmacies, suppliers of durable medical equipment, the community center, city hall, third-party transports and other fixed route bus services, which go to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, Mercy Medical Center in Iowa City and the Iowa City VA Healthcare System.

The new transit system would not be used for work trips or daily use, such as restaurants or bars, or for school trips for kids under 19. It would also not be suited for disabled residents needing to bring an assistive device, which SEATS can handle.

Yellow Cab of Iowa City, the proposed contractor as recommended by the North Liberty Transit Committee, has been in business since 1970, and under the same ownership since 1996. The company currently has over 60 drivers and seven dispatchers. All of its drivers are screened and approved by the Iowa City Police Department, and its vehicles are inspected and approved by the Iowa City Equipment Division.

Additional considerations

At its Dec. 20 meeting, the Transit Committee discussed a variety of questions and concerns on the anticipated transit program– largely from a legal standpoint and with respect to program rules applied to patron usage– for consideration by the city council in its first session of 2019.

Committee member Gary Boseneiler suggested possible exceptions for round trip fares to the North Liberty Community Food Pantry, such as having wait time built in so clients aren’t stranded at the pantry or having packages ready in advance at the pantry. Brian Wayson, who was absent from the Dec. 20 transit meeting, also suggested limiting the number of allowed trips per week, at least to start.

Concern was also addressed for proof of eligibility based on income status. Low-income individuals are defined as participants in federal, state or county assistance programs with a valid ID card from one of the programs; however, no such identification exists for Johnson County assistance. Various workarounds were considered for this obstacle, such as a temporary pass based on a bank statement or pay stub, or a one-time exception to the policy for a temporary pass to acquire proper documentation from the county office.

Committee member Brenda Conry questioned the blanket policy of senior eligibility, citing the transit service as a needs-based program for those unable to drive. “That’s the cost the city is paying for people who may not really need this service but are just using it because they can get a cab ride for a buck,” she remarked. “I would feel like I was scamming the city if I were doing that, but if we don't have any kind of restrictions, then that opens it up.”

The committee generally agreed the inability to drive should be part of senior eligibility, from the mindset of possibly loosening restrictions later rather than adding them. A similar concern was also raised regarding military veteran eligibility.

While North Liberty Mayor Terry Donahue questioned why transportation to churches was not included in the RFP, committee members cited the option of rides to local bus routes and the potential for transportation to be provided by churches to their respective members. Other concerns included the need to outline acceptable behavior of clients– specifically, aggressive physical behavior and language during transit.


Yellow Cab’s rate structure includes $2.75 entry, 25 cents every 1/12th mile and a wait time of 75 cents per minute. There are no extra passenger fees, zone fees, peak time fees or vehicle size fees. While committee members were satisfied with Yellow Cab's rate structure, they have only touched on how much the city will subsidize it, which is hoped to emulate Coralville's bus system. Patrons are expected to pay between $1 and $2 in fare.

“Using an average figure of, say, $17 a ride ... we could subsidize approximately 2,500 trips on our budget of $50,000 in a year’s time,” Mayor Donahue explained. “And the nice thing about this is, we only have to pay when it’s used.”

While the city will pick up the lion’s share of the cost, it currently has no way to estimate ridership. According to Transit Committee member Gerry Kuhl, should the $50,000 funding for fiscal year 2018-2019 be insufficient, the committee might ask city council for an amendment to take funding out of city's cash reserves.

An escape clause contained in the RFP will allow refinement of the program after the first 90 days or potentially sooner.

“You could find that a group is underserved, and so you may want to make modifications,” Kuhl explained. “The program is certainly not cast in stone, because we want to sit down with the cab company and see what the ridership is.”

The new service aims to solve the problems faced by the city’s failed bus pilot system, which ran from October 2016 to September 2017. The program, which contracted Johnson County for use of a SEATS bus for midday transit, suffered from a lack of ridership and cost an average $224.25 per ride.

Boseneiler has also recommended the city renegotiate the city’s contract with SEATS, which has North Liberty paying a higher rate than Coralville and Iowa City. Lowering this rate could provide additional funds for the city’s new cab service.

Next steps

The city council is expected to review the approved proposal at its Jan. 8 session, and the Transit Committee hopes for a Feb. 1 or Feb. 15 effective date. Identification cards will need to be made and a marketing campaign developed by the City of North Liberty. Kuhl anticipates discussion of the program’s marketing with the communications department in late January, after which marketing materials will likely be provided to local businesses and healthcare clinics for a February program roll-out.