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Cab service in the works for North Liberty

Transit Committee hoping for wheels on the ground by November

NORTH LIBERTY– The City of North Liberty is working quickly towards green-lighting a new demand-response cab service for the less mobile population.
“The voters of North Liberty have demanded that we do something about transit,” said Gerry Kuhl, former acting Mayor of North Liberty, 10-year member of the city council and current member of the Transit Committee. Kuhl is eager to get wheels turning on the project, first introducing an RFP (request for proposal) in September.

Service details

The 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. While details of the proposal, such as cost, service provider, eligibility and routes, are still being refined, a general concept has been outlined.
Only North Liberty residents 18 and over, or children with an adult chaperone would be permitted to use the service. Without knowledge of ridership or available grants, Kuhl said the committee doesn’t wish for the program to be open to general public, but rather to serve those in need. 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.
“We want the base of the population to be as broad as possible,” Kuhl noted, adding the desire to prevent residents with an OWI or revoked license from taking advantage of the system.
Riders would be required to present an ID card upon pickup; the city will likely provide several points for citizens to obtain said 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). Kuhl said users would 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.
“This, I think, is key in why the system had not worked previously,” he asserted, citing the previous inability for residents to access Mercy Iowa City medical facilities and the commercial district of northwest Coralville. “It’s much more broad-based than the current bus that we have.”
Comparing the new program to Johnson County SEATS (Special Needs and Elderly Assisted Transportation System), Mayor Terry Donahue explained, “We are, in a way, providing some of the same things, but at the same time, the options for pick up and drop off at their particular choice is enhanced and certainly more conducive to local needs.”
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. Kuhl also hopes to include a group travel option to the service, such as going to the movie theater. This was cited as “one of the iffy ones,” however, but possible for inclusion.
“I think it’s a positive step, because we can get people to where they need to be, particularly down to the mall and get them connected on to Coralville and Iowa City buses,” he summarized.

Cab providers

The Transit Committee is currently looking for one contracted taxi company and has interviewed various transit providers, including SEATS, Lyft and Uber.
“That was not a good situation,” Kuhl lamented on Uber. “They just couldn’t relate to our needs.”
When questioned by council members, Mayor Donahue explained further as to why the committee has virtually excluded the popular service from consideration. “You are completely at the mercy of the company, when they want to do it or can do it. You are driver limited,” he cited, adding the company may also charge premium prices in certain instances.
“I’ve had the exact opposite experience with both Uber and Lyft,” Councilor Chris Hoffman insisted, before noting both services are smartphone app-based and therefore not compatible with low-income residents.
Councilor Jim Sayre cited Uber’s business profile option as a possibility. “I would hate to exclude them,” he said, to the agreement of fellow councilors. He went on to insist on developing minimum qualifications for candidate companies.
The Iowa City-based Yellow Cab presented several options to the committee, which is favoring local as opposed to national businesses for the role. While the plan is to start with just one company, the idea of including others in the cab service in the future has been left open.
Despite the narrow timeline to approve and implement a new transit system, members of the council were receptive to Kuhl’s aspirations.
“I will commit to try to pull this off as quickly as we can,” Hoffman assured. Councilor Sarah Madsen showed more hesitance of the November deadline, wanting a thorough plan in place.
“If the residents are demanding this, then we should be doing it right the first time around and not rushing through the paces to put something in order that doesn’t make sense,” she said.
Following the initial proposal, Mayor Donahue, Kuhl, Brenda Conry and Gary Boseneiler of the Transit Committee addressed a series of written questions from city council members and made changes to the language of the proposal.
The city council planned to take another look at the revised RFP during its regular session, Tuesday, Oct. 9. The Transit Committee hopes the city council will green-light the service to start as early as Nov. 1, to get an idea of ridership from November to December and adjust the service and budget as needed.

Program costs

While the program is planned to be largely subsidized by the City of North Liberty, a fare rate is also being determined.
“I don’t know how we can come up with an amount without knowing ridership or usage,” said Boseneiler. “For the elderly and disabled who are on, already, a government program, is the idea to make money or improve quality of life?”
Should a fare rate be necessary, Kuhl suggested not to exceed $2, and to follow Coralville’s bus system as a guideline, which charges $1 for adults and children 5 years and older. As opposed to bus services, which have varied in ridership, Kuhl cited no money would be wasted on empty trips with the new taxi service.
The transit program has a budget of $50,000 for the remainder of the 2018-19 fiscal year. A $150,000 surplus from the previous fiscal year may also provide some carryover, and the Transit Committee plans to explore federal grant options. With the FY 20 budget process starting next month, the new system could offer early insight into future budgeting, should it begin as early as desired.
The program would be reviewed every 90 days, but likely analyzed month by month to start.
“We think we can do it cheaper than contracting with a bus company, like the City of Coralville,” Kuhl said of the cab service proposal. Although too early to know, he noted the success rate of the cab service could potentially allow it to expand to all residents of North Liberty. “Theoretically, you could open it up to the whole city.”

Past and present transit options

The new proposal comes just over a year after North Liberty’s failed bus pilot came to an end. The program, which had the city contract Johnson County for use of a SEATS bus for midday transit, suffered from lack of ridership. It lasted under 11 months, from October 2016 to September 2017, at an average cost of $224.25 per ride.
Currently, the Coralville Transit bus service makes one round trip through North Liberty on a daily basis, departing in the early morning hours and returning in the evening. SEATS also provides ADA paratransit to eligible residents. While the new taxi plan is not intended to replace the Coralville Transit service on behalf of North Liberty, Kuhl said the city is also considering increasing the frequency of the Coralville Transit route.
Horizons and Neighborhood Transportation Services (NTS) offer a free medical shuttle for University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, and Veterans Affairs patients who are not covered by Medicaid transportation benefits. The shuttle runs on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, stopping in North Liberty and at various healthcare facilities upon request. Rides must be scheduled by calling NTS a minimum of 24 hours in advance. Monday rides must be scheduled before noon the previous Friday.
Alternatively, ECICOG (East Central Iowa Council of Governments) provides its ADA compliant VanPool program in Johnson County, in which commuters can call and schedule a ride for any purpose.
While the 380 Express began shuttling passengers to work throughout the Corridor Oct. 1, it does not stop in North Liberty. Spanning from Cedar Rapids to Iowa City, the intercity bus service is planned to make daily round trips over the next few years during reconstruction of the Interstate 380/80 systems interchange. The Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT) had wanted North Liberty to provide parking off the Exit 4/Penn Street interchange, but this would have required the city to purchase land and build a concrete lot as per city guidelines. Since it was characterized only as a temporary service by the IDOT, the City of North Liberty did not find it a worthy investment.
Overall, the Transit Committee sees the proposed taxi service as a far more flexible option for residents of North Liberty in need of transit.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” Kuhl said. “But this is the first step, which will allow people to get where they want to be in the broader Corridor.”