By B. Adam Burke
North Liberty Leader
IOWA CITY– Contracts with Iowa City and Coralville for the county-wide para-transit bus service, SEATS, will expire at the end of June. But Johnson County supervisors have already decided they want to end their subsidy of the service.
The program provides riders around the county with door-to-door transport and anyone outside the city limits of Iowa City, Coralville, North Liberty and University Heights can request a ride that comes with a half-hour window for pick-ups.
The number one destination spot for SEATS riders is Pathways, an adult day health center in Iowa City, with about 1,000 trips per month.
Clara Schoderbek takes SEATS to a senior exercise class several times a week. She said before she moved back to Iowa, she checked that a rural transit service was available so she could get to Iowa City from her Solon condo.
“I can’t drive, but even if I could, SEATS is better than a car and cheaper too,” Schoderbek said.
There is no standard fare, but for Iowa City, the average fare collected in fiscal year 2012 was $0.83 per trip.
For para-transit trips, Iowa City could charge twice its fixed-route bus fare amount, according to the American Disabilities Act (ADA). SEATS director Tom Brase said Iowa City lost $120,000 by not charging double the regular rates last year.
The service has been providing rides for over 35 years and, as ridership has increased in past years, the county’s budget has expanded to cover SEATS costs.
Supervisors sent contract offers to Coralville and Iowa City officials asking them to start kicking in for the service that’s mandated by federal law.
Supervisor Rod Sullivan said it was unlikely the cities would go elsewhere for the service, and SEATS director Tom Brase agreed.
Sullivan and fellow supervisor Janelle Rettig had nothing but good things to say about SEATS.
“We love SEATS. It’s a great service, but we don’t have the money to subsidize the cities when they take away revenues in the area with TIF [tax-increment financing] deals,” Rettig said.
Rettig said the county cannot keep pace with inflation and the decrease in new revenues.
This year, the county is offering to put up $100,000 for Iowa City’s portion of the transit budget and $30,000 for Coralville. The county wants to cut that figure in half next year and end their SEATS contributions to those two cities entirely by fiscal year 2016.
SEATS director Tom Brase sent a list of ways to lower operating costs to Iowa City and Coralville transit officials.
Para-transit service must match the hours of service for fixed-route buses, but by offering rides on Sundays, SEATS currently goes beyond the Iowa City fixed-route schedule, and many people go to church on a SEATS bus.
In fiscal year 2012, SEATS’ Sunday bus service cost Iowa City $68,000. Brase said Iowa City could suspend the service or charge premium rates to offset the Sunday rides.
During weekdays, riders use the service for doctor’s appointments or to get to the grocery store.
When Helene Tokou, a 2007 UIowa PhD in computer science (applied algorithms), was beset by a stroke, it meant giving up the freedom to move about the community with a car. En route to a doctor’s appointment in Coralville, Tokou called SEATS “very useful.”
Solon resident Shirley Gilbert said SEATS is pretty handy and because she doesn’t drive anymore, she added, “Sitting at home all the time is no good.”
Gilbert paid $4 for the trip to Iowa City and back in order to do some grocery shopping.
Riders can pay in cash or use punch cards. Costs for rides can vary slightly depending on whether a trip is to Iowa City or Coralville, which have different bus fares.
Helen Larson lives in Coralville and uses the service to visit Pathways twice a week. She said SEATS takes some pressure off her daughter, who also drives her around on errands.
Robert Coleman, who’s driven a SEATS bus for about 12 years, said the service gives freedom to riders, many of whom don’t have family to drive them.
He said his riders can range in age, ability and mobility, but for the rest of us, “There are just so many things we take for granted.”
Although a large part of their ridership is elderly or disabled, SEATS riders just need to show a need for transportation and they must live three-quarters of a mile away from an Iowa City or Coralville fixed-route bus line.
In 2012, SEATS made 124,378 trips, a 10.5 percent increase and about 12,000 more trips over 2011. Despite the increase in miles, SEATS was still able to cut back on deadhead, or empty bus miles, by 10,000 miles due to more efficient scheduling.
Over a dozen SEATS buses are on the road during weekday hours. Weekend hours are shorter when SEATS cuts back to just a handful of drivers.
Johnson County Supervisor Terrence Neuzil said the county doesn’t want the program to disappear, but the subsidies to the larger cities have simply become too much.
“We have the desire to continue to provide a SEATS service for citizens in the unincorporated areas,” said Neuzil. Funding would likely come from the county’s rural fund, he said, and smaller cities would be asked to make a contribution for services to their own residents.
“We have not had an in-depth talk about it yet, but I have a good feeling if we get to zero subsidies for the major cities, it makes sense that we would look to do the same for all cities in Johnson County,” Neuzil added. Iowa City and Coralville are required by law to provide para-transit services since they receive federal funding for their public transportation programs, while the smaller cities in Johnson County do not currently have public transit.
Sullivan said some of the supervisors might try to meet with city managers to finalize the funding for the service before the end of January. The county board must publish its projected budget by Feb. 1. The supervisors will hold a public hearing on its proposed budget on Feb. 27, and conduct a vote March 7.
To find out more about getting a ride with SEATS, call 319-339-6127.