Johnson County commission opens public comment period on bus route reductions despite 2 members’ concerns

The RideKC transit station off Johnson Drive in Mission. The Johnson County Board of County Commissioners is considering cutting back on under-used bus routes and altering others.

People who ride the bus and their allies gave the Johnson County Commission an hour’s worth of reasons they should think twice before cutting routes and reducing service as planned in a couple of months.

Not only would the route cuts hurt people with disabilities and those whose budgets don’t include cars, but they would cost the county in expanded road and infrastructure repair as the county grows, according to several people who testified at the board’s Thursday meeting.

Commissioners are considering elimination of two routes and reduction of others, while expanding a new mictrotransit van service. But although some commissioners expressed support for transit, the majority stood by their earlier decision to open a public comment period on the route-cutting plan. The comment period will involve surveys of riders and online and is set to end in mid-March. No action on the routes can be taken until after the comment period.

Commissioners Janeé Hanzlick and Becky Fast voted against the measure, saying the county needs a bigger discussion of how its transit system will be able to serve a demographically changing and fast-growing county.

“I personally think this is the completely wrong way to go about improving our transit system,” Hanzlick said. “We’re disrupting people’s lives.”

Commissioner Janeé Hanzlick was one of two members of the board to vote against opening the public comment period, saying that the county needed to address questions about its public transit system before considering route cuts. File photo.

The plan is to eliminate two lower-performing routes – the 402 Johnson Drive to Quivira Road, and the 495 running east-west along 95th Street through Lenexa and Overland Park — and to reconfigure or reduce others. The 401 Metcalf route would add some service for Johnson County Community College but drop the part that goes to Prairiefire. The KU Edwards service would be cut from the 475 Quivira to 75th Street route and service to Gardner/Edgerton would also be cut back.

Before the 5-2 vote, commissioners heard from nine people, with most on the side of at least delaying the issue for more study, if not abandoning the cuts altogether.

Sheila Styron, who lives in Kansas City, Mo. and works at The Whole Person, said she got calls from several local clients who asked her to speak against the cuts.

“There are people whose lives will be severely impacted by cutting these routes,” said Styron, who is blind. Many people either can’t drive because of disabilities or because they don’t have money to spend on a car and gas, she said. Her sentiment was echoed by the county League of Women Voters, which also sent a spokesperson to oppose the cuts.

Melissa Cheatham spoke on behalf of Climate Action KC, a group dedicated to reducing emissions and improving air quality. That organization opposes the cuts and supports efforts to increase ridership, she said, noting that Kansas City is number five on Weather.com’s Climate disruption index of cities most impacted by climate change.

“Microtransit is important, but it should not be treated as a substitute for fixed-route transit,” she said.

The county is looking to reallocate some of the funding used for the bus routes to expanded microtransit services.

Daniel Hellweg, a political consultant from Olathe, said the commissioners should also consider the costs of not having a good transit system. As the county grows, the lack of public transit will put more of a burden on pothole repair and street widening, for instance.

Dan Hoyt of Overland Park told the commission that he was able to get his master’s degree in public administration from the University of Kansas in part because of bus service to Lawrence. The Lawrence line is not on the chopping block, but other lines help people just as much, he said.

“I feel like my community invested in me and allowed me to have that opportunity to better myself. I know that other people in our community deserve that same kind of investment,” he said.

An earlier plan that is supported by the county’s advisory council on transportation would have added about $1.1 million for more frequent stops on some routes and some Saturday service alongside the cuts. However the commission tabled that part of the plan at a meeting a few months ago.

Instead they have been pursuing mictrotransit as a possible substitute for some of the lines. Microtransit is a van hailing service similar to Uber. The cost to riders is expected to be higher than a regular bus fare.

Commissioner Becky Fast reiterated her objection to the cuts at the meeting. The cost of mictrotransit will be higher as more people use it, and the vans won’t carry as many people, she said. “This is going to be a very expensive service.”

Fast said the plan will affect people who take 30,000 rides a year on the routes to be cut. Meantime, objections about empty buses on the road don’t hold, Fast said. “I see empty parks. I see empty libraries on some days.” The county is raised millions for a courthouse and medical examiner’s building that few people will use, she added.

Commissioner Steve Klika, who has been an advocate for public transportation and is a former chairman of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority board, has been enthusiastic at past meetings in his support for mictrotransit and an end to underperforming fixed routes. He said he wants to provide a “reality check” so the county can find out through microtransit where people actually want to go. The system should be designed around that, he said.

Commission Chairman Ed Eilert did not offer wholehearted support to the cutback plan. He said he’d vote to continue the public comments and get more information. “My support for this is not a commitment to the recommendation in full,” he said.