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Discussion: Higher Gas Prices and Public Transportation

posted on May 19, 2008 at 2:06 PM

Iowans are coping, but big questions remain. What needs to be done to help Iowans adjust better to a climate of higher fuel costs?

What will those adjustments cost, and how soon can they be implemented?

We’ll pitch these questions and more at two people who are already working on solutions: Tom Kane is Executive Director of the Des Moines Metropolitan Planning Organization which deals with an array of infrastructural issues. Brad Miller is General Manager of Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority the state’s largest transit system.

Yeager: Gentlemen, thank you for coming in tonight. We're staring face forward at $4 gas. What do we do? What has $4 gas or the eve of $4 gas meant for you and DART?

Miller: Well, it's been huge. Ridership at DART is up 25% in the month of April over a year ago. We are seeing even higher increases on our longer express routes from places like Ankeny, West Des Moines into downtown Des Moines. For the year we're up double digits. We are seeing ridership growth a little bit ahead of other systems in the Midwest. I think the average for Iowa, Missouri and the Midwest was about 8%, we're up about 12% for the year. So, a lot more people in central Iowa are looking at transit as an option.

Yeager: And April was big for you from year to year, that was up 25%?

Miller: That's right. We're at about 18,000 rides a day on all of our systems. We also have a van pool program that serves even longer distance commuters coming from outside of Polk County, places as far away as Marshalltown, Pella into downtown Des Moines and that service is up 24%.

Yeager: Because people are still wanting to -- they're working in central Iowa but yet wanting to live in areas a little farther out for whatever reasons. So, those riderships -- have those always been strong? Why were those started where they were started? Why were those routes started in those outlying areas?

Miller: Well, I think it was just a way to ease parking congestion in downtown Des Moines, a lot of the businesses participate. Most of the businesses in Des Moines help subsidize their employees to ride transit. We have a new program where anyone in a company can sign on and ride for free. That has also certainly triggered a big ridership increase. How can you beat it if gas is $4 a gallon and you live in West Des Moines and maybe spend a gallon and a half of gas every day versus free if you work at Principal or Wellmark or one of the major employers downtown? It's no cost. You can't beat it.

Yeager: Tom, has $4 gas been the start of this discussion? It sounds like we've been having this discussion about planning on a wider scope for our transit.

Kane: I actually brought this issue up to our board of directors in summer of '07 as we begin the work on our 30 year long range transportation plan. At that time I challenged them well before the discussions of what are we going to do about land use? Where does transit fit into their comprehensive planning process? Because in our business with 16 cities and three counties we do not put anything in our 30 year transportation plan that is not consistent with what is in individual comprehensive plans locally, Des Moines, Ankeny, West Des Moines, etc. And so we don't see anything in those comprehensive plans that directly support transit, transit oriented development and how we're going to cope with this new issue. What the $4 gas has done is just push this, really push this out on the table now.

Yeager: Has there always been the big push in a lot of the discussions moving them forward? Is higher prices just at the pump? Or what has pushed this discussion along in the past?

Kane: We haven't had this discussion. I think we've always sat back saying what if we had $3, $4 gas. Suddenly it's there. It has come on us much, much faster than before. We've always said, well, we're not there, transit will do better if and when. We are at when.

Yeager: Is that going to alter your plans? Are you already going to have to change what you've set up, what you thought 30, 20, 10 years ago?

Kane: I think it's going to facilitate what the governments begin to do and Brad's board and my board are essentially many of the same people. And what it's going to force them to do is really seriously take a look at their land use decisions. From my perspective there are not going to be any immediate changes. It's going to take time and government is going to have to work together because these transit corridors are not singular governments. It's a region, a metropolitan area, they're going to have to work together. And so I think what the gas issue has done is force this out onto the table where they're really going to have to get serious about it in where they put their development patterns in the future.

Yeager: Brad, are you hearing some of the same things?

Miller: Yeah, as a point of reference, the last long range plan that the MPO adopted a few years ago, 99% of all the dollars -- those are federal dollars, state dollars, local dollars -- 99% of the dollars in that long range plan, 20, 30 year plan were for roads and 1% of the dollars planned for the future were for transit, for new bike trails, for other things that had to be in that plan. So, obviously those are the plans, you get what you plan. Certainly for transit to expand and to grow with the demand that we're now seeing we are going to have to start looking at new plans for the future.

Yeager: Talk about your demand. You were mentioning your peak hours are some of your busiest which that's why they're called peak. So, what is that ridership like during your peak hours?

Miller: Well, what we're seeing is just more and more people are looking for alternatives to avoid the gas prices. They are filling up our express buses and now we have standing load problems on our Ankeny routes, on our routes from West Des Moines. Ridership is at capacity in the rush hour. The insurance market that a lot of our riders are involved in, in downtown Des Moines, is not really as conducive to alternative hours of schedule so they really do pack them on right at the 8 to 5 sort of period. We are basically out of buses right now. We're looking at trying to shift our biggest buses around.

Yeager: You mean out of buses during the peak time?

Miller: Right. We don't have any other buses we can pull out to service that rush hour time. Similarly on our vans, our vans have gone from 75 to now 95 in just a year and we had some schedule for replacement that we've pulled back out of the shop to keep running.

Yeager: Your story is not going to be too different than any other city across the country and they're all fighting for the same federal transportation dollars. Is it going to take the feds to help out your organization? In Mason City it's, I believe, 68% of their operating expenses come from the federal government. The more efficient they become the better their money. I would imagine everybody is going to become more efficient. So, how do you try to get more money or try to expand routes or expand buses?

Miller: That's a great question. We are, of course, working closely with our federal partners to see what we can do. But frankly we are, as Mason City pointed out, we are already helped out a lot by the federal government. One problem that we face is that the state of Iowa does not provide any capital funding for public transportation. None of the money to buy new buses comes from the state. And so that is something we're working with the legislature to maybe consider into the future is allowing some state dollars to help match those federal dollars that are available.

Kane: May I add that next year the federal transportation legislation runs out. This is going to be a challenge and where transit fits in this, where infrastructure maintenance fits in, airports, passenger rail, freight issues, this is going to be a real challenge for Congress and now with $4 gas that affects freight, it affects driving, it affects transit. So, I think one of the critical junctures of what is going to happen with transit as well as all transportation is what Congress does with that new transportation legislation.

Yeager: Because gasoline is expensive everywhere across the country so everybody's Congressional districts, Senate district is going to be ringing the phone of their lawmaker. Do we anticipate a doubling, a tripling? Look into a crystal ball. What is going to be needed on a federal level to help push some of these alternative uses?

Kane: At this point in time transportation does not show up on the proverbial radar screen given all of the other issues that Washington is facing. But we're promoting the idea that transportation is economic development, it is the future, it is Des Moines, it is Iowa, it is the nation. So, we hope that Congress takes seriously investment in this. One of the phrases I use is we need a new Dwight David Eisenhower and we need a new interstate era. But I think what Brad is saying is that I think the new transportation bill will be much different than we've done in the past to give us choices on what we want to do locally with those federal dollars.

Miller: And one thing that has emerged over the last year or so is the whole green environmental movement and that is totally different than it was six years ago when the last transportation bill was approved. Public transit, every Iowan that stops driving their car to work and rides the bus saves 20 pounds of carbon a day by doing that. So, the green movement is certainly, I think, helping public transit's cause.

Yeager: It has also helped for more bikes, you've got racks on the front of some of your buses for bicycles. I believe the number was somewhere around 27,000 passengers last year brought their bicycles on. So, you're moving forward. You're doing a feasibility study right now, you're always doing studies I should say. Tell me about this latest one and is it involving rail? Is it involving rapid rail? What is the buzz word or what are you looking at?

Miller: Well, we're looking at ways to increase capacity on our transit network and make it even better for our customers. We are looking at a rapid transit alternative, probably from downtown Des Moines out to the western suburbs but we're also looking at possibly a rail, a street car type service in downtown Des Moines. All those types of services, as Tom pointed out, the way we are going to be competitive because there's hundreds of cities across the country looking at similar types of investments in transit as we move forward, the way we're going to be competitive is to link the investments to the land use and make sure that we spend whatever money that we are so lucky to receive in a wise manner.

Yeager: Tom, it sounds like we're going backwards to the time when railroads used to dominate everywhere. We're going to have to put railroads back in where we tore them out to make this happen?

Kane: I think for some of us it will be deja vu all over again because we are really looking at rail both for freight and passengers being very fuel efficient. We're looking at getting people out of vehicles, back into walking, biking, transit, whatever. No, we are re-visiting what we left in the last century and bringing it into the new century.

Yeager: I want to throw an idea out of here. In Idaho they're looking at possibly with state government what's called a stay at home day where they would have, if you could, stay at home for one day and not transport or travel to work. How would that work, the telecommuting? Is that something that you talk about or comes up in discussions?

Kane: Well, if I can take one of the shining non-transit issues we had was the completion of I-235 but I hope your listeners understand or your viewers understand that we are committed to taking at least 10% of the vehicles off the road. So, telecommuting is part of it, we fund something called transportation management association. I think there are issues of whether or not this will work or not because people still like to be with people even though we can cut down on the amount of driving. But I think -- let me just say, we've got to look at all options. I think at this point in time nothing is off the table as far as what we might do and I think the great thing is we as Des Moines in this metropolitan area in Iowa can use and bring in what fits for us an doesn’t have to be Houston, doesn't have to be Chicago.

Yeager: I would imagine DART has got to be at the center of a lot of this discussion. Who else needs to be at the table with you and Tom to discuss to move us forward?

Miller: I think what Tom said is the key. We've got to look at telecommuting, biking, putting your bike on the bus and it's got to be a network and really the key for us locally is that it is a regional effort. It can not be just Des Moines or just individual communities acting by themselves but a regional approach. People are commuting from Waukee, from even places further beyond to Des Moines and we need to look at all options in a regional way.

Kane: Can I just add that I think the Iowa Department of Transportation under Nancy Richardson's leadership is embracing a new way of looking. Clearly we're Midwestern, we're dominated by roads but I think under Director Richardson's leadership we're looking at rail passenger, rail freight, what do we do about I-80, what do we do about all these things. And so I think Iowa, the state is stepping up through Iowa Department of Economic Development as well with green issues and all that. So, it's a partnership at all levels.

Yeager: And we've had this discussion on this program before, people sitting in this same spot, is if we can get Amtrak to come from Chicago to the Illinois Quad Cities and now to Iowa City, to Des Moines, to Council Bluffs. How is that going to be an impact for everybody and important for everybody?

Kane: I think give choices. We know we have pressure on our airport system, particularly places such as Chicago. I think anything under 500 miles may not be flown in the future. We need choices. We need to serve populated areas where we have medical, university, etc., where we have activity centers. What that does, though, is once you get to Des Moines how do you get around if you've come in by rail? You need transit, you need taxi, etc. So, it is a system that fits within itself until you build to the national system.

Yeager: Final 30 seconds I'll leave to you. Any thought on that?

Miller: Just on that point and what we're trying to coordinate and as you said we have to coordinate with all levels. We are hoping to build a transit hub in downtown Des Moines right next to the railroad tracks where the Amtrak would come in. So, we're trying to design a facility so you can someday get right off an intercity rail Amtrak service and hop onto a bus or a streetcar or something and get around Des Moines.

Yeager: The old central stations, the old union stations of the time. As you said, some will remember it, some won't. I'm one of those that won't remember that but we won't get into the age very much there. Tom Kane is Executive Director of the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and Brad Miller is General Manager of the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority. Gentlemen, as always, it goes so quickly, thank you for coming in tonight.


Tags: Energy/Environment fossil fuels HEAT Iowa politics pollution public transportation transportation


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