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Ridership low in first six months of North Liberty’s pilot intracity bus service

Council members reconsider tie-in to Coralville routes

North Liberty Leader
NORTH LIBERTY– After six months of service, the success of the new North Liberty Transit program seems to be uncertain.
The intracity bus service, running for three midday hours during the week, has seen a total of 159 rides since its grand opening last October– costing the city an average $146.34 per trip and $48.47 per hour.
“I’ve been saying for a long time that we can’t afford to do what needs to be done,” said council member Jim Sayre during the March 28 meeting when the data was discussed. “We’re just nibbling away at stuff.”
A transit advisory committee was originally charged back in 2015 to develop a plan to provide intracity transit for residents on a trial basis. The service was to target transit-dependent residents and was not intended to be used for daily commuting.
While the council’s request for the service to pay for itself was eventually scrapped, just $91.50 of the total $23,267.98 billed to the city has been received in fares. The city initially budgeted $50,000 for the service in fiscal year 2015, but another $50,000 was allotted last July.
“This has always been a work in progress over the years in however we can deliver a transit service,” said council member Chris Hoffman. “We probably didn’t expect to revisit this as quickly as we are.”
The City of North Liberty’s contract of purchase for transit services with Johnson County SEATS (Special needs and Elderly Assisted Transportation System) and ECICOG (East Central Iowa Council of Governments) lasts through June of this year; however, the city can choose to opt out sooner with a 30-day notice or renew the contract.
“The original idea was to run it for a year and see where we’re at,” said North Liberty city planner Dean Wheatley. “To provide it on a trial basis and see if that amount that the council decided to obligate created a service worth keeping.”
The average monthly cost, around $3,800, is actually less than the $4,480 originally estimated in the contract. Wheatley said the contract signed last fall was based on actual SEATS hourly cost, which can vary monthly.
“It depends on the number of trips, cost per mile and average trip per hour. That’s all calculated monthly so we have a better idea of what’s going on,” explained SEATS Director Tom Brase.
In February, the North Liberty route only picked up six riders, collecting $3 in fares. The city was billed nearly $4,000 for the month, resulting in a high $663 cost per trip. The route saw its highest ridership in November, with 42 users, but the cost per trip was still $93.
So far, the paratransit service offered concurrently has received no dial-in requests per service.
“I just don’t think that anyone could conclude that it’s a success at its current point,” said Wheatley. “We’re just not carrying enough people to call it a success.”
However, he noted it’s difficult to draw any conclusions based on so little data.
“If it picks up then I think that will be a harder call to make.”
Brase is optimistic a little more advertising and the impending warmer weather could increase ridership. He said SEATS hopes to get its hands on an old vehicle from Iowa City, which could be wrapped with the North Liberty Transit logo.
“The biggest feedback from drivers is the visibility of the SEATS bus,” he added. “People think it’s not related to North Liberty.”
Currently, signage specific to North Liberty is limited since the SEATS buses are rotated among routes. A few magnetic logos are all that adorns the intracity, fixed-route bus, which makes six stops– from the North Liberty Living Center all the way north to the North Liberty Community Pantry.
“The thing to maybe not forget about, this new SEATS service was very targeted for residents here who are transit dependent, who don’t have alternative means of getting around town,” said Wheatley. “It wasn’t mean for commuting or going down to the mall to shop. It was very focused.”
Nonetheless, city council members discussed at the March 28 meeting whether somehow connecting the service to the Coralville route would attract more riders.
“I wonder if there’s a better way for us to be linking into the Coralville system, something that would require much less time on the road,” said Hoffman. “I think if someone is willing to take the time at a much reduced rate to get to Iowa City through the public transit system, I think the least we could do is get them reconnected to Coralville.”
But Wheatley said that option has been examined in the past and was determined to be unfeasible.
“It could be something we could look at again,” he added.
A Coralville bus already runs from North Liberty to Iowa City in the morning and returns in the evening. Wheatley said ridership for that service, which costs the city upwards of $80,000 a year, is declining. In December 2016, the bus logged a little over 700 rides– a decrease from a lifetime high of around 1,500 in late 2012. The numbers include Coralville residents who get on and off the bus at four Coralville stops.
“As you can imagine, as ridership declines, the subsidy per ride increases because the service invoicing is based on actual costs to provide the service and not on cost per ride,” Wheatley noted.
The rolling annualized ridership of the service is also down, from over 15,000 in December 2012 to less than 12,000 this past December. Wheatley said the annualized views help smooth out irregularities from month-to-month and paints a better picture of usage.
Past surveys about transit service in North Liberty have unfortunately been misleading, he explained.
“I can tell you the typical transit respondent says yes I want transit, yes I’ll use transit, then they don’t use it,” he said. “People like the idea of having it available but they’re not willing to commit themselves to using it every day. To have a good solid transit system that is cost effective, you really have to have one that has consistent high ridership.”
Which, Sayre believes, is unattainable in North Liberty.
“Personally I think the demand’s just not there,” said Sayre. “I think overall there’s a lot of commuters in town. Ridership is going to be low no matter what.
“I’d rather spend the money on things that are going to be in town on things we need,” he added.
Moving forward, the council agreed to reconvene the transit advisory committee and reconsider linking the fixed-route to Coralville.
“There are other options with it,” said Brase. “They would like the fixed route where it’s going around and everybody could get used to it and know where it’s out. But we could also provide demand response, but that’s their decision on what they want.”
He noted if the service were changed to dial-response, the requirement for paratransit during the same time frame would be null and void, as anyone could call for a ride.
North Liberty Transit offers weekday service between 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Fare is payable in cash only and $1 per one-way ride And a discounted fare of 50 cents per one-way ride for Medicare and Medicaid card holders is also available.
For information, call 319-626-5700 or visit northlibertyiowa.org/city-services/transit.