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Supporters toot ATA Bus’ horn

By Burk Krohe

Tuesday’s City Commission meeting was scheduled to focus on a right-of-way vacation on 9th Street and a speed limit reduction on Moro Street. But many residents used the meeting’s public comment portion to talk about the Flint Hills Transportation Agency’s (ATA Bus) planned fixed-route bus system.

Residents on both sides of the issue attended the meeting, though proponents of the fixed-route system were more vocal. They urged commissioners to consider approving some sort of right-of-way agreement that would allow ATA Bus to put signs and shelters on city land. They felt it would be a relatively small concession in comparison to the benefit it would provide.

Last summer, a proposal for a fixed route system, with two dedicated bus routes, was rejected by the City Commission on a 3-2 vote.  The three opposing commissioners, Wynn Butler, John Matta and Loren Pepperd, felt a public transit system would not be sustainable and worried it would lead to larger and larger funding contributions from the city.

Anne Smith, director of ATA Bus, said last week the agency will proceed with its plan for two fixed bus routes without funding from the city. The routes will start operation April 23. Smith went to Mayor Jim Sherow to ask consideration for a right-of-way agreement, which would allow signs and shelters on city property. Smith said those additions would enhance the service for users.

Commissioners declined to put it on an agenda, though, saying they needed more information about the routes, where the bus stops would be located and liability issues. Matta also requested funding projections.

Several of the speakers were Kansas State students who expressed optimism toward the system and what it would mean to students. They said international students and those without cars, especially in their freshman year, often have difficulty accessing basic services and amenities.

They also noted the traffic congestion and parking problems on and near campus and said a fixed-route system would help reduce the number of cars on the road. Additionally, they felt the success of the SafeRide program is an indicator that students will use the two fixed bus routes.

“This is something that needs to happen in the city of Manhattan,” Emily Taylor, a K-State student, said. “Ultimately it’s not going to cost you anything, but it will mean the world to people just being able to use those fixed-route systems.”

Non-students supporting the fixed-route system said public transportation is a basic measure of quality of life and something people relocating to Manhattan consider.

However, opponents believed granting a right-of-way agreement could open the door for ATA Bus to seek funds from the city.

Smith denied existence of any “secret plot,” and said the service is only asking for a right-of-way agreement. However, she noted the agency lives “one year at a time,” and it’s not unreasonable for an agency such as ATA Bus to request funding.

“The most I can do is ask and the worst you can do is say no,” Smith said. “I don’t have a crystal ball, and I’m not going to pretend to.”

Butler and Matta reiterated their position against funding a fixed-route system because of the city’s financial position. They added that all the commissioners are behind the on-demand service the agency currently provides.

Matta said they weren’t necessarily against a right-of-way agreement, but commissioners need a detailed plan, which includes information on the bus stops.

“We don’t have the tools to make a decision,” Matta said.

Sherow, who has continually supported a fixed-route system, didn’t see it that way. He noted the ATA Bus has the funding to run the system for one year and added if the funding dries up in years to come, ATA Bus will remove the signs and shelters at no cost to the city.

“I don’t know exactly what more needs to be discussed,” Sherow said. “If all we’re asking for public right-of-way then lets get on with it.”

Matta was unwavering, “Show us the plan then we can talk about it,” he said.

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