Johnson County is aging. Johnson County is also growing. And those two trends, as well as the needs of the developmentally disabled and mentally ill, are putting a squeeze on the county’s transit system, particularly the Special Edition buses that take that population to and from adult day centers, doctor and dentist appointments.
To that end, JO officials are trying a small expansion of the service area for those buses that will allow trips about a half mile farther south and west of the current boundaries. It is a first small step in the county’s effort to deal with the special transportation needs of a growing population in the western and southern part of the county.
The six-month pilot project, which started Aug. 1, was conceived especially for a new adult day services provider that located just outside the Special Edition service boundary. The project will allow clients to be dropped off at service providers a half mile farther west and south than the current boundaries of Kansas 7 and 159th Street.
For the time being, that will mostly affect riders who want to go to Willow Tree Supports, Inc., a Shawnee provider that has been open since January. Willow Tree Supports offers vocational and independent living skills training to adults with developmental disabilities.
It’s a fairly restricted program. It won’t be open to people who live within the extension but west of Kansas 7 and south of 159th Street. And it’s only for trips to certified locations such as in-home or day services. So far Willow Tree is the only one, but later there could be others, said Alice Amrein, the county’s transportation director.
Amrein hopes the project will help the county get a handle on how to deal with population growth to the west and south, especially new housing in western Shawnee and development along Kansas 10.
The Special Edition service is a flexible form of transportation for people who would have difficulty driving. Generally, a bus or taxi picks up riders who call ahead and request a trip. Most of the trips are curb-to-curb, but there are a few fixed routes. To qualify, county residents must either be 60 years old or have a documented disability or meet certain low-income guidelines.
The entire county is not included in the Special Edition, however. Boundaries run from 47th Street on the north to 159th Street on the south and from the state line on the east to Kansas 7 on the west, an area of about 315 square miles.
The pilot will increase the area to 329.5 square miles.
The problem, Amrein said, is that the areas south and west of the boundary are looking more built up. Hence, residents and service providers locate there assuming they will have bus service.
That was the case with Willow Tree Supports, said co-owner Patty Long. The center, in Perimeter Business Park on West 83rd Terrace, is surrounded by businesses. “When we first started, we didn’t even dream (transportation) would be an issue,” Long said.
The last boundary change for the Special Edition buses was about seven years ago. County funding issues have kept Special Edition in largely the same service area for years, and that doesn’t come close to matching the need, Amrein said.
As an example, she cited a 1999 analysis conducted when the southern boundary was at 135th Street, dipping down to 151st Street to include the Olathe Medical Center. At that time, with an area of about 152 square miles, the para-transit service was meeting only 24 percent of demand, she said. That study included services from other agencies and non-profits.
The service today continues to fall short of the need, she said. “We routinely have to tell people we can’t provide service because they are outside the area,” Amrein said.
Special Edition has about 1,800 users currently — “a very, very small percentage of people eligible,” said Amrein. That number has remained fairly steady, she said, because the service is at or close to capacity, making close to 250 trips per day.
The county has tried to keep costs in check recently by adding 10/10 Taxi to the service. That change, implemented in January, has reduced the number of buses in use by about 15, or half the fleet and has been deemed a success by commissioners.
Data from the six-month project will give county officials an idea where to go from here. A permanent boundary expansion will depend on the county commission’s willingness to put more money into its budget, Amrein said.
“The demand is definitely out there,” said Commissioner Steve Klika, speaking of a bigger permanent service area.
Klika wants the county to look at the big picture of public transportation not only for Johnson County but for the entire metro area, all types of services.
“The county needs to, in an organized manner, start expanding based on need, the fixed routes and special services,” he said. “Ultimately we’re going to need an integrated regional program that basically removes borders” and ties the existing system together, he said.
That may or may not include new ride services such as Lyft and Uber. Regulatory questions about those still need to be worked out, he said.
Until the funding is resolved, though, the county will continue to struggle with how to get the most service to the Special Edition users, he said.
Johnson County has always been car-centric, but that may change as the population gets older, Amrein said.
“I just think we need to start making provisions for the future for people who might not want to drive,” she said. Public transit, “offers people more flexibility and independence as they age in place.”