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Small towns need transit

Corridor public transportation systems need connectivity

NORTH LIBERTY– Residents of North Liberty and rural Johnson County inhabit areas that transportation planners sometimes refer to as “transit deserts,” locales where substantial numbers of people without cars rely on public transit services that stop short of providing access to the outermost pick-up and drop-off points of larger metropolitan bus and passenger rail systems. It’s an issue that has caught the attention of state-level representatives of Corridor communities.
During the town hall meeting held at the North Liberty Community Center on Thursday, Nov. 9, Iowa Senators Kevin Kinney (D-Oxford) and Liz Mathis (D-Hiawatha) along with Representative Amy Nielsen (D-North Liberty) talked with area residents about the economic future of rural and small-town Iowa and obstacles to securing employment throughout the Corridor. The discussion soon turned to the linkages between jobs and transportation.
Job opportunities in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids are abundant. Options for getting to and from work if one lives in smaller towns along Interstate 380 are not. The Iowa legislators representing such communities acknowledged this problem and discussed the complexities of finding solutions.
In her ongoing attempts to address the issue, Senator Liz Mathis found that funding for transportation infrastructure and lack of political will were key factors.
Four years ago, she started having conversations with Cedar Rapids companies who were reluctant to expand their operations to third shift due to transportation barriers for potential workers.
“When the public buses stop in Cedar Rapids at 6 p.m., how do people get to their third shift?” said Mathis.
She put the problem before state agencies and the legislature to find solutions.
“I devised this plan that businesses would put an amount of money in a pool, depending on how many employees were using the transportation service to get to their business, and the state would put up matching funds for that. And then the rider would pay a certain amount depending on their salary or hourly wage,” said Mathis.
“You could use the money… to start van pools or some type of transportation service to fill gaps when public transit stops, or make some of those connecting drop-offs, because sometimes the buses miss each other and then people have to wait an hour for next one. It’s crazy!”
“And so we put this deal together and presented it. DOT didn’t want it. Nobody wanted to make it their own. Iowa Economic Development Authority didn’t want it. They didn’t want to administrate it,” recalled Mathis.
Mathis persisted and appealed to colleagues in both state houses.
“I went over to the House (of reps) and talked to the head of Ways and Means, and he said ‘Liz, that’s corporate welfare.’ And I said, ‘God, did you read the bill?
“I went to Joni Ernst when she was still in the state senate (on a subcommittee) and she said, ‘Well, where I’m from we strap the leather on our feet and we get walkin’.’ And I just said ‘Joni… we’re not talking just about small towns. A lot of our manufacturers (and) businesses… maybe they’d like to be out in small towns, but they’re in more urban areas. They’ve got a lot of people there that have to get to work, and why not employ them?’
Workers may have transportation, but it’s not reliable, Mathis said. The wheel falls off, or the engine won’t start, or you don’t have garage to put car in in winter, or you’re sharing a car with a spouse, she noted.
After repeated attempts with her bill, Mathis got it passed in the Senate, but the House wouldn’t pick it up. Through a more indirect route, the substance of her plan may still see the light of day.
“Now the Governor has a program she’s going to initiate called ‘Future Ready Iowa.’ And what do you know? There’s a transportation piece in there,” Mathis noted. “It looks a lot like my bill!”
State Representative Amy Nielson explained how factors such as profitability and the siloing of operations within existing transit organizations have thwarted attempts to develop connectivity between urban transportation systems and towns with much lower population density such as North Liberty.
“Transit is not profitable. You don’t make money on a transit system,” Nielsen asserted. “And that’s really hard for some entities to get over. You’re not going to make money, it’s not going to be cost neutral. It is a service. You have to be willing to provide that service to your customers or residents.”
Another piece of the puzzle is unwillingness among transit entities to cooperate in order to broaden service to smaller communities.
“Right now Iowa City has their own transit, Coralville has their own transit, Cedar Rapids has their own transit,” Nielsen noted. “It would be really nice if they all worked together to provide connectivity. But nobody wants to give up the ownership of their transit system and their federal dollars that subsidize that. North Liberty is not big enough to get the kind of money that Iowa City gets.”
Nielsen recalled the pilot program launched in October of 2016 while she was still Mayor of North Liberty. A service contract developed with Johnson County SEATS provided a limited fixed schedule of rides throughout North Liberty, targeting transit-dependent citizens such as the elderly and disabled. The city council ended the service in August of 2017 based on its analysis of high-cost inefficiencies as indicated by low ridership over the 10 months it existed.
“The transit system that was implemented was totally City (of North Liberty) money, general fund money. Nobody else helped with that,” said Nielsen. “And to do it the way we really wanted to, what we had eventually hoped to do with the transit when I was still on the committee, was to grow it.”
But the success of such programs depends on time and money that local governments just don’t have.
“You have to give it time. You have to be willing to put the money in. Nobody’s going to pay for it. That’s a lot of the problem right now,” Nielsen explained. “It’s just not profitable, it’s not neutral. And everybody wants to keep their own toys in their own sandbox and not share. Why can’t the Coralville bus come up... why can’t we do that? Because they don’t want to, they want to run it their own way.”
Jeff Wait, a retired business owner from Iowa City, suggested that a grassroots volunteer program might be a better way to offer rides to the grocery store and doctor appointments to North Liberty’s transit-dependent individuals.
“If somebody calls me up and says I need a ride, I do it all the time,” said Wait. “I believe if there was a public cry for rides, there would be at least 15-20 people who would step up here. That’s how those things get started.”
“And that’s a good idea,” Nielsen answered. “You’d like to think that that would work. But when you start something like that, the number one thing is reliability.
“So you start out with 15 or 20 people volunteering their time to do that, and that’s great. And that goes on for three or four months. And then a couple people stop doing it, because it’s just too much, and then some more people stop because it’s the holidays… I’ve tried to run completely volunteer programs and it just doesn’t work.”
Nielsen noted that in developing the pilot transit project, the committee considered the feasibility of taxi vouchers. “It is so unbelievably expensive to do it. North Liberty doesn’t have a taxi service, so you have to call someone in from Iowa City,” she said.
“There’s just so many factors to provide transit to people who live in North Liberty because we don’t have that connectivity throughout the Corridor and throughout the county. It would be great to get a county-wide transit system and then maybe even collaborate with Cedar Rapids,” said Nielsen.
Given that North Liberty is situated between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, it would make sense to push for inter-city coordination of transit services.
At the state level, change and opportunity toward increased connectivity may be on the horizon, however, based on the five-year highway infrastructure plan that will have a direct impact on North Liberty and it’s environs.
In anticipation of the major overhaul of the Interstate 380/80 interchange near the Coral Ridge Mall, the Iowa Department of Transportation will offer express bus service between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, funded as part of the $300 million construction project. Based on recommendations from a 2014 Commuter Transportation study commissioned by the DOT, the service will start in 2018, a year before construction begins, to get commuters to warm to the idea of hopping a bus to bypass the headaches of congested traffic on 380. In efforts to alleviate further disruptions to traffic while the new interchange gets built, the express buses will run for the duration of construction, from 2018 to 2025. Some believe the seven-year experiment with the express bus line could become a permanent move toward intercity connectivity.