Public Transportation in Columbia, Missouri: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Officials in Columbia, Missouri, are celebrating the successful launch of “CoMo Connect,” the city’s rebranded bus system. The heightened service is part of Columbia’s recent push to improve its public transportation system through a significant increase in spending. While that investment has yielded positive results for the level of service the bus system provides and the overall ridership, increasing transit costs may become a burden for local taxpayers.
The Good: Setting aside the overall merits of the increased transit spending, Columbia’s bus system has better service and many more riders than it had a decade ago. From 2006 to 2012, Columbia made more than $10 million in capital improvements to its bus system. These improvements have come in funding spurts, one between 2006 and 2007 and another from 2010 until today. Columbia has spent the money on new buses, better facilities, and increased service. As a result, the number of buses plying Columbia’s streets has almost tripled and vehicle revenue hours have more than doubled since 2006. Technology has improved as well. Today, it is easier to track your bus in Columbia than in Saint Louis.
The Bad: While ridership has almost tripled since 2006, most of that increase followed the first $4 million in capital improvements made from 2006 to 2007. Significant spending in 2010, 2011, and 2012 actually has been followed by decreased ridership. Officials have blamed an increase in fares for the drop-off, but at $1.50, Columbia’s fares are cheaper than many cities and still highly subsidized; annual fare revenue only accounts for 10 percent of the system’s operating costs. Furthermore, improved service has steadily pushed up operating costs, from $2.7 million in 2006 to more than $6 million in 2013.
The Ugly: More taxes might be on the way for city residents. Although officials claim CoMo Connect is resulting in record ridership, they fail to mention that they temporarily have made the bus free. At the same time, the bus system’s goal of holding down growth in its operating budget is increasingly unlikely, and city officials are looking at ways to increase funding. Columbia currently funds transit with a local sales tax, student housing contracts, bus fares, and downtown parking fees. Columbia might have to further increase these taxes and fees to fund transit, despite the fact that less than 1 percent of Columbians use the bus to get to work.
Columbians would do well to consider what they hope their bus service can achieve and how much those achievements are worth. Otherwise, the decisions will be made by those who have made transit usage an end in and of itself.