The wheels on the bus

TARC’s recent round of proposed cuts forces city to rethink public transit

Mar 17, 2010 at 5:00 am

Without a car or a driver’s license, Joseph Hart will have to wake up around 6 a.m. to make an upcoming job interview at UPS by the afternoon. The 19-year-old college student, who lives in the Portland neighborhood, knows how to time the bus schedule just right and spends most of his week riding to wherever he needs to go.

“I thought about getting my driver’s license, but I just don’t have the time, and I continue to use the bus,” he says. “And the 12th Street route has saved my butt a couple of times instead of waiting an extra two hours to get where I need to go. These bus lines are people’s life lines around here.”

In February, the Transit Authority of River City announced it would be making another round of service cuts that include eliminating the 12th and 22nd Street lines, which are two bus routes that connect the west Louisville community to southern Indiana and other main routes. Hart uses those lines regularly and will find another way to get around if forced, but it’s not going to be that easy for other residents.

“The elderly people who use the bus to go grocery shopping can’t just walk an additional five or 10 blocks,” Hart says. “They’re taking away from people who really depend on these buses. Don’t they get your $1.50 every time you ride? I can’t understand. I mean, quit cutting bus routes.”

Facing a projected $5.5 million revenue shortfall for the upcoming fiscal year, the public transit provider has proposed eliminating 20 routes and reducing service on 17 other bus lines to close that deficit. It’s a recommendation that could result in the loss of 8 percent of riders. And although TARC officials acknowledge the cuts will hurt passengers, particularly in parts of the city that depend on public transit the most, they say they have few options due to the bleak financial outlook. That’s especially true given the city’s occupational tax, which provides the bus service with about 60 percent of its revenue, will likely remain flat through next fiscal year.

“What we’ve got to do is figure out a way to noodle through both the financial crisis and provide this community with the public transit it needs and wants,” says Barry Barker, executive director of TARC. “And that’s a challenge. None of this is cast in stone, but what looms over this whole thing is this huge budget shortfall.”

Last year, federal stimulus dollars stopped the financial bleeding and TARC avoided making drastic cuts and layoffs, but that reservoir of money has run dry in a lingering recession.

With few immediate short-term solutions for TARC’s beleaguered budget and with frustrated passengers fearing the worst about thinning services, a chorus of community activists, elected officials and mayoral candidates say fixing the busing system means renewing a long-term vision and commitment to public transportation services.

After hearing hundreds of complaints and comments from riders during public hearings last week, Barker says he will modify the initial recommendations made to TARC’s board. He plans to present the revisions at the board’s March 22 meeting.

While in Washington, D.C., for a transportation conference this past weekend, Barker planned to lobby local lawmakers for much-needed funding, adding that he is hopeful a proposed “Jobs Bill” will earmark additional funding for public transportation this spring.

The federal government, however, is having a difficult time funding all government services, and public transit isn’t immune from cuts, says U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, who plans to discuss the latest proposed cuts with Barker.

“We certainly have to be thinking about (public transit) over the next five to 10 years. Things aren’t going to change immediately,” says Yarmuth. “But I think the community ought to embark on a comprehensive transportation study to see what the goals will be in the future. We have to start planning for that now.”

According to the American Public Transportation Association, more than 80 percent of public transit systems have experienced either sluggish or decreased funding. In response, most transit systems have been forced to raise fares, cut services or both.

During the 1970s, the city made a controversial decision when faced with a faltering transit service. In 1974, voters approved a referendum to increase the occupational tax to help pay for transit, an effort spearheaded by then-mayor Harvey Sloane. The increased tax was combined with a federal grant, which allowed TARC to purchase new buses, reduce fares and extend service lines.

These days, however, elected officials consider raising taxes in this economic climate counterproductive, not to mention political suicide.

“I have not seen any urgency on the part of leadership here, and that’s the problem,” says Independent mayoral candidate Jackie Green, adding that he wants to see a change in how public transportation is funded. “One alternative might be levying a carbon tax on incoming gas and diesel fuel at the distribution centers — not at retail — and take those funds and move them to public transit.”

Until city leaders begin rallying state and federal leaders to fund public transit as opposed to asking for billions of dollars for the bloated Ohio River Bridges Project, Green says the poorest residents will be carrying the bus system’s budget woes.

Among the many passengers feeling the pressure of the potential service slash is Jennifer Strane-Harris, acting president of the Portland Now Neighborhood Association.

Last week, the grassroots organization drafted a letter to TARC with a proposal that combines routes to preserve bus service. She says residents are deeply concerned and have many ideas, including TARC executives taking a voluntary pay cut.

TARC officials say they are now considering alternatives to eliminating certain bus lines, like consolidating routes and pooling services, but they declined to provide details.

“There needs to be a better service because right now it’s hard to get anywhere. I’ve noticed the crowded buses, longer waits and more passengers at bus stops,” Strane-Harris says. “And I don’t think they grasp the situation and realize people, and I mean poor folks, are the ones who depend on the bus. They don’t see what people are going through.”