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JoCo Commission: Pay up or get off the bus, Lawrence

Passengers board the the K-10 Connector bus at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park in 2012. The but line, which heads to the University of Kansas in Lawrence, has been one of the most popular routes for many years.
Passengers board the the K-10 Connector bus at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park in 2012. The but line, which heads to the University of Kansas in Lawrence, has been one of the most popular routes for many years. File photo

Johnson County’s most popular bus route — favored by college students and commuters to Lawrence — has become the source of longstanding frustration among Johnson County officials who say Lawrence hasn’t been paying its fair share of the cost.

The K-10 Connector was the subject of recent discussion among county commissioners, who say Lawrence hasn’t held up its end of the cost for the past three years. The issue begins afresh this spring, as cities and counties get set to write their 2018 budgets.

“We deal with this every single year,” said Commissioner Steve Klika. “We play uncle. We lose and then we just look like fools.”

Klika and other commissioners said the $120,000 the county has been receiving each year from Lawrence since 2014 does not come close to the amount it should be paying. Since more riders live in Lawrence, and since the county runs the service and pays the capital costs, the city should be paying closer to $190,000 for next year, they said. That’s based on a formula that weighs ridership and population.

The K-10 Connector, with about 105,000 rides in 2016, has the highest ridership and collects the most in fares in the county transit system. About 50 percent of the riders live in Lawrence and 47 percent in Johnson County. With one end in Lawrence and the other at the University of Kansas Edwards Campus, it has been especially popular among students.

In fact, the service was started partly in response to parents of college students who had asked for it, Klika said.

The route costs about $1.2 million to run. After fares, federal and state support are subtracted, the county and Lawrence will be left with about $445,000 in expenses to make up in 2018.

As budget planning season begins, Lawrence officials had asked the county commission to submit the amount they thought the city should pay. But commissioners noted during a study session that the city has always paid $120,000, regardless of what the county thinks.

“If this were my company and this were my decision I would mail Lawrence a check for $120,000 and tell them thank you very much. Just turn it around,” said Commissioner Mike Brown.

“I recognize that is bold and that is not necessarily playing very nice but when you send an invoice to somebody and they send you less than what you requested, that’s not playing very nice either.”

Commissioner Michael Ashcraft also wondered aloud where the county should draw the line. “At what point do we throw an elbow and say this is either a partnership or it’s not?” he said.

The difficulty is that since the county is running the service, it becomes the county’s choice to either accept lower payments from Lawrence or give up what has been a popular and necessary service, some county officials said.

“The other option is dissolving the service,” said Commission Chairman Ed Eilert.

County staff said the route has been mutually beneficial to both entities. With some new people in Lawrence city hall, they said they hoped the city and county could come together this year.

“Having cut my teeth on the city of Lawrence politics, they don’t view us very kindly, so this is a way we can work together on some level,” said County Manager Hannes Zacharias.

The commission decided to submit a $190,000 bill to Lawrence this year and negotiate from there.

The city is at the beginning of its budget-writing cycle and leaders there won’t make final decisions for a couple of months, said assistant city manager Diane Stoddard.

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