KY: Is fare-free public transit an option in Owensboro?

If the system were to go fare-free, the first issue would be filling the void from lost fares.

Messenger-Inquirer, Owensboro, Ky.

Jan. 12--On Dec. 5, 2019, the Kansas City, Missouri, City Council voted unanimously to approve a "Zero Fare Transit," measure. The vote effectively made Kansas City the first major metropolitan area in the United States with free public bus service. 

Is a fare-free service possible in Owensboro-Daviess County?

The 2019-2020 operating budget for the Owensboro Transit System is $2,856,105. Those dollars are split into three categories: administration, capital and planning, with the City of Owensboro providing $1,031,421 and the Federal Transit Administration filling in the remaining $1,824,684. If the system were to go fare-free, the first issue would be filling the void from lost fares, said Pamela Canary, OTS system manager.

"The cities that are considering a fare-free system are large metropolitan areas," she said. "We are a small city and before anyone says, 'Why can't we?' I would like to see a model in a similar city. We pulled in roughly $135,000 in fares. Who would make up that difference? The city. In those large metros, the transit system is funded by city and county funds, here it is solely the city. We don't have that reinforcement and we don't have a large enough operation where we get millions from the FTA."

The move toward free-fares on the part of Kansas City is meant to boost the local economy, increase access to job availability and eliminate the 3.5% knock against a commuter's median income of $17,190. The kicker, however, as Canary said about OTS, is that Kansas City still has to find its $8 million share of the total $12 million it will take to keep their system fare-free annually, according to National Public Radio.

Outside of funding itself, if OTS did adopt a fare-free model, it would significantly affect Audubon Area Community Services' Green River Intra-County Transit System, Canary said.

GRITS is a predominantly Medicaid-funded service that provides transportation to more than 170,000 people in 20 counties at a dollar amount of roughly $5 to $7 a person monthly.

"Aside from financing our lost revenue, we would also have to help make up for GRITS loss in revenue as well," she said. "We already pay in roughly $120,000 to them and if we adopted that kind of model, the city would have to fill in that gap and pay them roughly $250,000."

So, the answer to whether or not Owensboro will adopt a fare-free policy in the near future is a hard no, but that is by virtue of the city's makeup and need, said Lelan Hancock, assistant city manager. 

"When you get into rural areas like ours that has a transit service, most individuals have cars and it is a different lifestyle than it is in the bigger cities," he said. "People are spread out here. On our part, it takes getting the service out there and reaching out to the community, which Pam (Canary) has done a great job on. You have to reach out to colleges and those groups that service people that utilize our system and can promote our system in a different light. I think we have seen increased ridership and usage because of many of those initiatives."

Given the 315,000 reported rides in 2018, Hancock's assertion that OTS is not only being used, but ridership is increasing seems to be spot on. And given that system's $1 adult rate and $30 monthly pass, not including myriad discounted rates for seniors, youth and disabled and Medicare-eligible community members, are lower than many U.S. cities, those numbers will most likely rise.

With a fare-free Owensboro service not on the horizon, but with discussions of increased routes and strategies surrounding reducing the time it takes to get from one stop to another as well as increased partnerships with educational institutions and public service organizations, OTS is working toward making the necessity of travel as seamless as possible for the people of Owensboro and Daviess County, Canary said.

"We have our new free student ride program with (Kentucky Wesleyan College) and (Owensboro Community & Technical College), which is exciting," she said. "Those institutions pay a lump sum and their students can ride anytime and any day we are in operation. We have 17 free days a year and recognize national days, like "Dump the Pump," as well as Veterans Day and 12 Days of Christmas, and we provide rides to get people to outreach programs for services they may need. There are a great deal of agencies that buy discounted tickets and provide them to their clients so they can get to where they need and we also provide free rides for White Flag Events.

"We do all that we can to make the system affordable and accessible to anyone that may need it. We are always looking at different public events that would allow for free rides and we are always looking for partnerships to increase accessibility for our riders."

For more information about OTS visit transit.owensboro.org.

Jacob Mulliken, 270-228-2837, jmulliken@messenger-inquirer.com

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