The heads of two transportation systems in Cedar Rapids say they want to make sure those services help where they can — with new fares and passes.
And after losing federal transportation funding, Cedar Rapids Transit and Neighborhood Transportation Services (NTS) have had to devise new ways to continue offering reduced fares for low-income residents.
CR Transit provides bus service throughout the city from 5:20 a.m. to 6:20 p.m. during the week and from 8:25 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. on Saturdays. There is no Sunday service.
NTS supplements CR Transit by providing after-hours rides to and from work for second- and third-shift employees in Cedar Rapids, Marion and Hiawatha. Both services traditionally have had reduced fares for low-income residents.
However, the agencies’ ability to offer those fares was affected earlier this year by the introducing of the federal Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, or MAP-21. Terry Bergen, Mobility Manager for the city’s Transportation Advisory Group, said local officials didn’t pay much attention to MAP-21 initially until they realized the reshuffling of funding at the federal level meant the city no longer would be receiving money for its Job Access Reverse Commute, or JARC, program.
The JARC funding has allowed the city and NTS to offer reduced rates for eligible residents on a sliding scale.
“MAP-21 came along,” Bergen said. “That took the funding for the JARC program.”
CR Transit manager Brad Debrower said the city’s current — and final — JARC contract is for approximately $295,000. Those funds are shared with NTS.
The contract expires in March 2014.
NTS executive director Mike Barnhart said his organization has received about $150,000 in JARC funding for reduced fares, which represents 15 to 20 percent of his operating budget.
Bergen said the transportation advisory group got to work six to eight months ago to figure out how the city would handle the loss of federal funding.
Both Bergen and Debrower noted the city is under no obligation to offer reduced fares. But they believe it was vital to continue to offer affordable transportation to low-income residents.
“These people are going to be challenged to find any other means of transportation,” Bergen said. “They need some help.
“If they can’t get to work … they’re not going to be able to support themselves and their families. It’s going to be extremely difficult on a lot of people. The city is concerned for a lot of people.”
A two-tiered structure
What they came up with is a new fare structure that increases the single ride fares for adults, seniors and those with disabilities and decreases single ride fares for students and those who have an income at or below 160 percent of the Federal Poverty Level. In addition, 31-day bus passes for adults will increase, but will decrease for everyone else.
“We’re looking to have a two-tiered structure,” Debrower said.
Under the proposed fare system, which is subject to city council approval:
Debrower said the hope is the moves will absorb the loss of federal funding and be “revenue neutral.”
“We’re just looking to try to shift things around so we can hopefully absorb that with the proposal,” he said.
Recouping the loss of the federal funding has proven to be more difficult for NTS.
Formed in the mid-1990s for residents of the Wellington Heights neighborhood who reported having difficulties getting cabs to come to the neighborhood and take them to work, NTS now serves all of Cedar Rapids, Marion and Hiawatha. Not a traditional public transportation service, NTS allows anyone without transportation to schedule a ride to or from work during the hours CR Transit doesn’t operate.
NTS deploys buses, full-sized vans and minivans and provides rides for $5 a trip.
The organization provides about 40,000 rides per year, and executive director Barnhart expects that number to continue to rise.
Barnhart said NTS still hasn’t determined how it will make up the difference of the $150,000 loss of JARC funding. One option is to partner with some of the businesses NTS regularly serves. Barnhart said NTS has received funding from some companies — about $12,500 — but he declined to identify them.
“We hope the local businesses we serve during that time would hopefully pick up some of that slack,” he said.
NTS also has received some funding from the cities it serves, who Barnhart described as “good partners.”
Barnhart said NTS has had to reduce the number of morning routes it runs, but otherwise has avoided any additional effect on services.
“We’re trying to do anything we can, but we don’t want to raise fares,” he said. “That’s our last resort. We’re hoping the businesses will step up.”
Despite some uncertainty about funding, NTS intends to participate in the city’s reduced fare program on a trial basis. Those who qualify for the city’s reduced fare program will be able to get NTS rides for $3 instead of the standard $5.
“We’re going to try to honor the low-income discount that the city is giving and offer a discount on our services, as well,” Barnhart said.
The city’s Finance and Services Committee has recommended that the reduced fare proposal be sent to the city council, which will take up the issue yet this year.
The hope is the program will take effect when transit service returns to the flood-stricken but soon-to-be-reopened Ground Transportation Center on Dec. 1.