New board could get money rolling for ATA

By Corene Brisendine

Flint Hills Area Transportation Agency (ATA Bus) wants a bigger pile of money from the federal government, but can’t do it alone.

After Manhattan was designated a metropolitan area, ATA Bus qualified to receive urban public transportation funds. However, those funds can only be distributed to a public entity.

ATA Bus was created as a non-profit in 1976. Since then, it has been receiving rural public transportation funds through Kansas Department of Transportation, where KDOT acts as the public entity that administers the federal funds to ATA Bus.

ATA Bus director Anne Smith went to the Flint Hills Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) for help in receiving those funds because it is a public entity and because KDOT has stressed to Smith that it wants ATA Bus to remain a regional public transportation service.

MPO planner Gary Stith said that he has been working with Smith to create a public transportation board within the MPO to act as administer for the federal funds.

However, all the all the local representatives of the MPO—Geary County, Pottawatomie County, Riley County, Junction City and Manhattan—must approve the board, otherwise the federal government will not allow ATA Bus to receive the funds.

So what will the funds do for ATA Bus?

Smith said that the differences between urban and rural funds are significant.

One advantage is the split.

Rural funds are a 50/50 split with local funds and federal funds at an even match. Smith said that the local funds come from a variety of sources, including Kansas State University, bus fares and local government contributions. City commissioners budgeted $53,024 for ATA Bus to provide on-demand service only in Manhattan for 2014.

The urban funds are an 80/20 split with the federal government supplying the lion’s share at 80 percent and the local match at 20 percent.

Also, the way the funds can be used differs.

She said that under rural funds, KDOT buys all the buses for ATA Bus. With urban funds, ATA Bus would be able to buy its own buses tailored to the region.

For example, Smith said that ATA Bus recently put bike racks on five buses. However, the rural funds did not help pay for any of them. Instead, K-State forked out $10,000 for the racks.

She said that the urban funds would have allowed the racks to be purchased at the 80/20 split. So, K-State would have only needed to contribute $2,000 to buy five racks.

More fixed routes

Smith said that another advantage is that urban funds can be used to pay for preventative maintenance, which is not permissible under rural funds.

She said that oil changes, tires and breaks are the “number one” cost to ATA Bus.

By supplementing that cost through urban funds, it would allow for more fixed routes, longer fixed routes, more time in service or more buses at current local funding levels.

Smith said that K-State funds the majority of its fixed routes, including all of the safe ride routes and the routes around campus.

She said that the urban funds would help create more fixed routes around Manhattan.

For example, she said that there are several low income housing developments on the west side of town, but the farthest west ATA travels is to Target and the Westloop Shopping Center.

She said Rosebud Estates has several people calling for on-demand service, which demonstrates a need for a fixed route to the park. However, with no stop near Rosebud, those people must call to get a ride.

Another low income development is being built on Scenic Drive. She said she has also received several requests to create a route to Highland Ridge Apartments, a development along Scenic Drive. However, there is no funding to provide a route past Seth Child Road.

She said she would also like to create a stop between the mall and the city’s new parking garage. She said that would not only boost parking in the garage, but reduce the need for parking downtown.

However, she said that the city would have to be more willing to fund fixed routes.

Public perception

Smith said that one reason for the lack of fixed route funding at the local level stems from public perception.

She said that several people have told her public transportation is used by those who are “living off the system.” She said that is just not the case in Manhattan.

She said that 40 percent of her passengers in 2013 used ATA Bus to get to work and that the majority of her passengers use the service to get to school for post-secondary education. The next highest users of the service are the disabled citizens, but she said they also use the service more to get to school or work.

Smith said that when she first started working for ATA Bus, the majority of the people using the service were people going to medical appointments.

However, since 2007, ATA Bus ridership has increased 1300 percent. She said that the number of rides it provided the entire year in 2007 is what ATA Bus provides in a month today.

In 2013, ATA Bus gave 285,000 rides. In 2012, the service gave about 150,000 rides.

Regional concept

Smith said that another obstacle she continues to battle is that of regional service. She said that when the service first started, it could not cross the Riley county/Pottawatomie county line.

She said that made it impossible for Manhattan residents living on the other side of the river to get a ride to work. Now, ATA Bus services the citizens living in Junction City, Riley County, St. George, Green Valley and Fort Riley.

Smith said that she would love to create a fixed route between Manhattan and Wamego.

She said that the unique demographics around Manhattan makes regional transportation a must because Fort Riley sits between Junction City in Geary county and Manhattan in Riley county, and because Manhattan resides in Riley and Pottawatomie counties, with all three entities sprawling across three counties.

Smith said that Bill Clark, secretary to the MPO, has been going to each of the local governments asking for their support for the public transportation board. She said that Clark plans to address the Manhattan city commission at its Jan. 21 meeting.

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