Olathe & Southwest Joco

April 9, 2013

Despite concerns, Johnson County Commission gives final approval to JO fare increase

Some commissioners worry that the increase could cut into recent gains in ridership.

Although some members of the Johnson County Commission voiced concerns last week, they all gave final approval to bus fare increases that will go into effect April 15.

The biggest increase will come to the popular K-10 Connector to Lawrence. Those prices will go from $3 to $3.50 per ride. Monthly passes, which were not offered in the past, will be $117.60. Meanwhile, express routes would go from $2 to $2.25 per ride and from $67 to $75.60 for a monthly pass.

The fare increase, close on the heels of a cutback in routes, comes at a time when bus ridership has been increasing. Deputy Transportation Director Chuck Ferguson said ridership on the JO has increased 22 percent in the past two years, with a third of it coming from the K-10 Connector.

However, the fare increase could cut into those gains. Transit staff predicted about 6 percent fewer people will ride the bus next year because of the increase. But the higher fares still will bring in an additional $90,000.

Some County Commission members expressed mixed thoughts about the fare increases, even though their vote Thursday was unanimous. Commissioner Steve Klika said he worried about the possibility of fare increases cutting into ridership. The increases would be easier for the public to accept if they weren’t so sharp, he said.

“Increasing fares is not a comfortable thing to do,” he said. “A huge increase all at one time tends to cause some discomfort.”

The Lawrence route, which has been one of the JO’s ridership success stories, has sometimes been a sore point for the commission. Although about 60 percent of the riders are from Lawrence, the cost of the route is borne by Johnson County’s transit system, which also receives federal funds. The commission is in negotiations with Lawrence about footing part of the cost.

The commission also Thursday approved the purchase of a new 45-foot bus equipped with Wi-Fi to serve the Lawrence route. The county will pay for it with $114,000 from the transit budget. Another $456,000 will come from federal grant money. The new, larger bus replaces one with 600,000 miles on it.

The fare increase is the second in as many years for riders of the K-10, many of whom are college students. But at the meeting, Commissioner Michael Ashcraft wondered why the county didn’t target those riders even more.

“Is it necessary to increase the rates equally across the system or can you target rates on routes demanding more resources, more creature comforts?” Ashcraft said, referring to the Wi-Fi.

“Why not target that market segment if the market could handle the costs?”

Ferguson said original plans focused more of the increases on the K-10, but transit officials backed off them because they might have violated federal rules against putting undue burdens on minority and low-income riders. The Connector has a significantly higher number of racial minorities and low-income riders because they are students, Ferguson said.

Eminent domain begins for Kuhlman property

The County Commission also voted to begin condemnation proceedings for construction of a sewer on the Kuhlman Diecasting property near 164th Street and Mission Road. The property, abandoned by a company that is now defunct, is the last bit of easement needed for the first phase of a $15.4 million sewer expansion project.

The increased sewer capacity will serve the 600-acre Walnut Trails development, which is south of 185th Street and Mission Road near the state line in Overland Park.

Questions persist about who has clear title to the property. “It seems to me there is no alternative,” to eminent domain proceedings, said Chairman Ed Eilert.

But some commissioners wondered about the county’s liability, given the fact that the site has received federal Superfund money to clean up contamination there.

Don Jarrett, county counsel, told the commission that the county is not obligated to further clean up the site. But it could be liable if construction crews don’t do their boring correctly and expose contaminated soil.

Walnut Trails, a mixed-use development, is upstream from the former diecasting operation.

Compressed natural gas station to be expanded

The county took another step toward embracing compressed natural gas as its alternative fuel of the future. Commissioners voted to spend an additional $115,000 from county general fund reserves to build a compressed natural gas filling station and convert three vans to CNG fuel. The total cost is $445,000, with the remainder coming from the Metropolitan Energy Center.

Like other businesses that rely on fleets of vehicles, the county has been looking for an alternative to increasingly volatile gasoline prices. The commission and county staff have been enthusiastic about compressed natural gas because of its low emissions and relatively low cost per gallon. Currently, natural gas fuel is $1.20 per gallon, with mileage equivalent to gasoline-powered vehicles, according to county staffers.

“Price is price and prices can change, but right now the big price advantage is to CNG,” Eilert said. “I think this is an excellent approach.”

The filling station, which will be built at the Nelson Wastewater Treatment Plant in Mission, will only be open to government users.

Record attendance at county museum

The Johnson County Museum set record attendance during the recent school spring break. Attendance for the month of March was up 35 percent, or 547 visitors, over the same time last year, and March 20 had an all-time visitor high of 506, according to a report from County Manager Hannes Zacharias.

Museum attendance has been increasing since 2008 and is up 6 percent over last year. While that’s good news, it’s also a strain on a facility that is outgrowing its space, he said.

The county commission recently bought the old King Louie West bowling alley with plans to move the museum there. The museum, currently located at 63rd Street and Lackman, has dealt with water leakage problems.

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