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How about Free Transit for Bus Users instead of Free Parking at the Airport?

September 2, 2019

Dear Constituent:

Happy Labor Day - I hope you are having some down time away from work!

Because of the holiday, this week's City Council meeting will be held tomorrow evening (Tuesday) at 7pm at City hall. It will be a significant meeting as the Council will vote on several proposed amendments to the City Manager's Draft FY-2020 Budget. There will be an open public hearing prior to the votes - I encourage you to give testimony at the meeting or email me with your input beforehand.

One budget amendment I am planning to support would re-allocate about $260,000 of Transportation Sales Tax revenues from Columbia Regional Airport to the Go COMO Transit System. In this newsletter, I will explain why I believe this re-allocation is justified, offer a long-term vision for transit and a community engagement process to develop it, and recommend budget strategies for the transit and airport utilities based on the proposed re-allocation of funds.

A specific outcome of the re-allocation might be to provide free transit for bus riders instead of free parking for air travelers, which would be consistent with our social equity goals.

Why is this Re-allocation Justified?

As I discussed in this opinion article last year, Columbia’s transportation sales tax (one half-cent on the dollar) generates approximately $12 million per year, which has traditionally been allocated to roads (about 50%), transit (about 25%), and airport (also 25%). Given the disproportionate impact of sales taxes on poor families (it accounts for a much larger share of their income), I have serious concerns about the use of $3 million per year to subsidize airport operations, which mainly serves wealthier residents.

When the airport was struggling several years ago, I supported this large public subsidy. Having a viable commercial airport a short drive away is beneficial for the University of Missouri and local businesses, and is convenient for residents. However, in the last 10 years, annual passenger boardings have increased ten-fold and there are now 16 departures and arrivals every day. In addition to $3 million annually in transportation sales tax revenues, the airport receives $700,000 from the lodging tax increase passed by voters in 2017. It is also in line for federal grants totaling tens of millions of dollars within the next few years, for construction of a new terminal.

Contrast the improved financial condition of the airport, with the dire situation for public transit. In recent years, increased staffing costs (due to City Council policies to pay livable wages, which I support) have driven the transit budget into deficit spending and forced deep service cuts which were implemented a few months ago, causing severe hardship to many residents.

I believe we need a plan to wean the airport off its sales tax subsidy so that more of those funds can be used for transit services, and the re-allocation of about $260,000 per year is an important step in the right direction.

What's the Long-Term Vision for Transit?

Good question - and one which should be answered by the whole community! However, I’m happy to share my thoughts.

It is clear that we need a much more robust transit system in the future if we are going to achieve the goals of our Social Equity Plan, Climate Action Plan, and Vision Zero Plan. If we want everyone to thrive, residents who do not drive or do not own cars have to be able to get to jobs, services, and medical appointments, ... and if we’re going to eliminate carbon emissions and traffic deaths, we will need to provide good alternatives to private vehicle travel.

I applaud City staff for responding to the required service cuts with a thoughtful redesign of the Go COMO Transit System which is easy to understand, focuses on high-ridership routes, and balances the budget - for $5.5 million, we now provide six routes with buses every 45 minutes, service until 7pm six days a week, and citywide Paratransit. However, by doubling the current budget over time, we could improve service to the level at which many car owners would choose to use the bus instead of driving because travel time and convenience would be comparable. With that in mind, my long-term vision for transit is an $11 million budget in five years’ time – but I want to hear from everyone else!

Therefore, I am proposing a community engagement process to study the benefits of a robust transit system and develop a shared long-term vision. For example, a Council-appointed Task Force (possibly modeled on the successful Climate Action Task Force) could meet for twelve months and then host a two-day conference (similar to the 2015 Affordable Housing Symposium, which led to new programs, policies, and funding for affordable housing) before delivering recommendations. Whatever format is chosen, it will be necessary to identify goals and specific strategies for expanding transit service, such as:

  • Developing a partnership with Columbia Public Schools
  • Working with the University of Missouri to establish a universal-access transit program for students
  • Merging the parking and transit utilities, and operating the combined service to achieve the City’s big, visionary goals
  • Re-allocating transportation sales tax revenues by reducing the airport subsidy

The budget amendment that will be voted on tomorrow evening will start this process and demonstrate commitment. The additional $260,000 in the transit budget could be used initially to strengthen the reserve fund (which was facing insolvency a year ago) while we design a community engagement process. Alternatively, we could explore the opportunity presented by fare-free transit, as has already been successfully implemented in two other college towns (Chapel Hill, NC and Missoula, MT) and is currently under consideration in Kansas City.

Please let me know your thoughts on fare-free transit, organization of a Transit Task Force and/or Symposium, and tomorrow evening’s proposed budget re-allocation.

How will the Airport Replace the Lost Revenue?

If the budget amendment is approved, Columbia Regional Airport will receive about $260,000 less than currently shown in its FY-2020 budget, meaning it will have to reduce planned expenditures, draw down a small fraction of its $74 million reserve fund, or find a new revenue source.

One simple way to raise $260,000 per year would be to charge a $3 per day parking fee for the 240 spaces in the paved lot immediately in front of the airport terminal. Implementation costs would be minimal if a “Pay and Display” system is adopted - patrons are required to purchase a parking pass from a ticket machine and display it on their car dashboard. This exact system (including the $3 per day fee) is used successfully at the Santa Fe Regional Airport, which is similar in size (71,252 annual passenger boardings) to Columbia Regional Airport (65,014).

A daily parking fee of $3 would be significantly lower than the amount charged at most comparable publicly-owned airports in adjacent states:

  • Iowa: Sioux Gateway Airport (36,413 passenger boardings): $7 per day
  • Illinois: Chicago Rockford International Airport (101,790): $7 per day
  • Arkansas: Texarkana Regional Airport (33,565): $10 per day
  • Oklahoma: Lawton–Fort Sill Regional Airport (51,088): $6 per day
  • Kansas: Manhattan Regional Airport (63,761): Free parking
  • Nebraska: Central Nebraska Regional Airport (68,879): $5 per day

Re-allocating $260,000 from the airport to transit would be a small step towards a more equitable City budget. It could create free transit for bus users instead of free parking for airport users – do you support that?

Cheers, Ian