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On the bus

NL officials, task force hope to test drive options for intra-city transit

NORTH LIBERTY– For 10 years, certain North Liberty representatives advocated for transportation options for residents.
Behind the scenes, a committee is still working toward that end.
North Liberty’s appointed Transit Advisory Committee, comprising council members, staff liaisons and residents from various backgrounds, has met over the last decade to study public transportation needs and make recommendations for implementation. In 2006, a partnership between the cities of Coralville and North Liberty created a fixed-route service to carry commuters between the two communities. The route has been modified once since then.
After its early work, the Transit Advisory Committee met intermittently to address specific council requests, but was not regularly active until recently.
In early 2015, Mayor Amy Nielsen asked the council to allocate $50,000 in the city budget to the task force so it might explore options for intra-city transit, perhaps even initiate a pilot program.
Her goal was to find ways the city can provide rides around the city, with a focus on assisting seniors and people with physical restrictions who can’t drive themselves to destinations like doctor appointments, grocery stores or the food pantry, the library and pharmacies.
So with a renewed purpose, the transit group revived discussions in November 2015.
Two months later, at the North Liberty City Council meeting Jan. 26, City Planner Dean Wheatley updated the council on recent task force discussions.
Currently, some North Liberty residents are served by Johnson County’s SEATS program. The para-transit program runs in North Liberty Monday through Friday in the mornings, midday and afternoons. SEATS is a demand-responsive model, in which riders can call to schedule a ride around the provided times and at minimal cost– just $2 per ride for users– but only transit-dependent people can use the service, as determined by the Coralville Transit department. As per the agreement, the city subsidizes riders’ costs at around $20 per ride.
North Liberty’s expense for SEATS service varies from year to year, depending on ridership. In calendar year 2015, it cost the city a total of $11,418.
SEATS Director Tom Brase came to the committee’s Dec. 10 meeting to talk about ways the existing paratransit service could be made more useful to North Liberty residents, Wheatley told the council.
“After a lot of discussion, the group asked me to explore costs with (Brase) to see what we might be able to do,” Wheatley said. Under consideration is a proposal to run a number of smaller fixed routes within city limits throughout the day and provide some dial-responsive rides in between.
“All depending on the cost, of course,” Wheatley added. “That’s what we will be exploring, at least in the short term, for five days a week. It will take awhile to sort details out.”
City council member Brian Wayson is a liaison to the Transit Advisory Committee, and the group sent questions to the council via Wayson.
First, they wanted clarification on whether a new ride program should be restricted to staying inside city boundaries.
“On Holiday Road, there is a big (medical clinic). Is there any resistance to going slightly outside our city limits to that?” Wayson asked. “We didn’t want to exclude someone going to the doctor if their doctor is in Coralville instead of North Liberty.”
Nielsen replied that SEATS’ regular service should accommodate those riders, but Wheatley noted not everyone who might use a city service would be eligible for SEATS.
“SEATS is restricted to approved individuals based on their inability to otherwise get where they need to go,” Wheatley said.
Instead, there is potential for the city to contract with SEATS outside its current contract’s governmental parameters so the service could be extended to other riders, Wheatley added.
“The service they provide today would likely stay in place and continue unchanged, but the new service we contracted for would be open to whoever you all determine is eligible,” Wheatley said.
Hoffman hesitated to approve a ride service outside of town. “Because then, really, where does it end?” he asked.
Wayson said limiting rides to within North Liberty might be too restrictive to be useful; for example, the future Hy-Vee store at the intersection of Forevergreen Road and Highway 965 is technically in Coralville. Also, he noted, individual insurance plans may not cover in-town medical providers, and other medical resources may not even be available, such as lab services or certain types of radiology tests.
Hoffman conceded providing rides to services currently unavailable in North Liberty would be helpful, but it would be important to define those parameters from the beginning.
Wheatley contended that, no matter how it is defined, there will always be demand for more.
“The question will be, how firmly will we be able to resist those demands?” he posed.
Council member Terry Donahue said he preferred the ride service stay within North Liberty’s city limits or to places right on the boundary line. Councilors Jim Sayre and Annie Pollock concurred.
“I do like the idea of staying in the city limits for now, but we have to start somewhere,” Sayre said.
So far, the $50,000 set aside last year has not been spent on any pilot programs, and the task force wondered about pairing the unspent funding with a future allocation to make a more extensive program– maybe even purchasing North Liberty’s own bus.
Pollock was not on board with that.
“If we do buy a bus on the hopes that something might work out, it makes me nervous to try to sell a bus if it doesn’t,” she said. “I don’t want to purchase something right off the bat.”
Wayson said all ideas are still preliminary and the task force’s first order of business is to wait and see what kind of partnership SEATS might propose.
“We can talk about the money when we get a better plan,” Wayson said.
Nielsen agreed.
“There are so many things the committee wants to do, and it’s hard to keep everybody focused on the one thing we wanted to accomplish, which was transit within our corporate limits. I would like to see us establish that, and then grow it,” Nielsen reiterated.
North Liberty’s contract for the fixed-route service with Coralville extends through fiscal year 2017. In calendar year 2015, that arrangement cost $77,027.
“I feel like we are spending a lot of money on a few people twice a day,” Wayson said.
Wheatley said, after the meeting, the Transit Advisory Committee now awaits his discussion with Brase to learn the potential costs and details of working with SEATS to open additional services to more riders.
“Our original goal was to get something in place as soon as practical,” Wheatley said. “There are lots of unknowns at this point.”
The Transit Advisory Committee meetings, next scheduled for Feb. 11 and Feb. 25, are open the public.