Commuter bus lines to U at risk

Cuts to Metro Transit could limit routes and cause headaches for off-campus students.

Commuter bus lines to U at risk

John Hageman

 

Bus routes running to and from the University of Minnesota campus were an important factor to Ian Campbell as he was hunting for apartments in the fall of 2009.

Campbell, now a senior, chose to live in Uptown partly because of the commuter routes that go straight to campus with limited stops.

But due to budget cuts, Campbell and other students living off-campus may have to deal with longer commutes in the near future.

Facing a potential $109 million cut from the Legislature, the Metropolitan Council may be forced to cut commuter routes to the University and increase fares by as much as 50 cents, Metro Transit officials said last week.

As many as 131 out of 146 total bus routes could be affected âÄî from making stops less frequent to scrapping routes altogether.

In a public meeting Thursday, John Levin, director of service development for Metro Transit, said commuter routes to the University could be on the chopping block next year. Those routes include the 111, 113, 114, 118 and several others that stretch to Minneapolis suburbs.

Those routes could be targeted for cuts because riders have other options for getting to campus, like transferring from downtown or taking a local route, Levin said.

Campbell said both options would add about a half hour to his commute and added that commuter routes to the University are the âÄúlifebloodâÄù of transportation to campus due to a lack of public parking spots.

âÄúPeople choose to live in Uptown and other areas based a lot upon bus access to the [University],âÄù Campbell said. âÄú[Cutting routes] would completely change peopleâÄôs decisions about where they want to live.âÄù

The Met Council, which oversees Metro Transit, scheduled seven more public hearings in August to receive input from citizens across the metro area. A final plan will be drafted in September, and the changes would go into effect in January 2012.

Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed the LegislatureâÄôs proposed $109 million cut to the transportation finance bill in May. Final cuts to transportation, if any, are still up in the air and will be decided once lawmakers pass the budget.

Adam Duininck, a Met Council board member whose district includes the University area, said the plan is to âÄústay in the discussionâÄù at the Capitol and hopefully avert major cuts. He admitted that some cuts may be unavoidable considering how far apart Dayton and the Legislature are on the transportation budget.

How to close the gap

While many people speaking at the public meeting Thursday lamented the cuts from the Republican-led Legislature, others offered ideas on how to bring in more revenue to the Met Council.

Citizens at the hearing suggested hiring more part-time drivers, reducing transfer times or inviting more corporate sponsorship.

Those ideas, while worth looking at, wouldnâÄôt be enough to close the gap in the current budget scenario without a combination of service reductions and fare increases, Levin said.

Several residents also said they would rather pay a higher fare than suffer service reductions. But Levin explained that increasing fares alone canâÄôt close the gap.

Metro Transit estimates that a 25-cent fare increase would raise net revenues by $11 million over the next two years. But a 50-cent increase would only raise $16 million because fewer riders would be willing to pay for the higher fare.

That scenario would result in an 8 percent drop in ridership, a loss that would take 24 months to recover, according to Metro Transit estimates.

Because U-Pass rates are correlated with bus fares, University students may see a price increase as early as January.

Union concerned about layoffs

Michelle Sommers drove buses for nine years, serving people that relied on public transit to get to their multiple part-time jobs.

Now, as the president of the union representing Metro Transit employees, Sommers is worried that not only will workers be laid off, but also people who need transit wonâÄôt get it.

Metro Transit estimates more than 500 employees would be laid off if the proposed cuts stick. That possibility has been brought up at every union meeting for the past three months, creating anxiety for workers, Sommers said.

To combat the budget cuts, the union worked with Transit for Livable Communities, a nonprofit transit advocacy group, to mail 14,000 postcards to legislators and Dayton calling for no cuts to transit, Sommers said.

âÄúPeople donâÄôt realize what cutting transit does to a community,âÄù Sommers said.