To Bill Cartwright, it's an old question -- one that's been answered for Tulsa's bus system in the past.
With limited resources, do you focus on bus frequency, or instead make sure all parts of the community receive some bus service?
Tulsa's system has a wide reach. But if a would-be passenger just misses a bus at their stop, it takes an average of 55 minutes of waiting for another bus to come by.
Last month, Tulsa city councilors asked Cartwright to study how the system might look if the focus was on frequency instead of reach.
While Councilor G.T. Bynum said he was "not in a position right now to make any sort of proposal," he and other councilors told Cartwright in a Sept. 13 committee meeting they wanted more information about how a system might work if the emphasis was placed on frequency rather than coverage area.
In an interview, Cartwright explained how the bus system arrived at its current state.
"Back in 2002, when the national economy declined dramatically and the city economy and the city budget declined dramatically, we got our budget cut quite a bit," said Cartwright, general manager for the Metropolitan Tulsa Transit Authority.
Cartwright said the idea of cutting bus routes met with strong public opposition.
"When we have a large number of transit dependent people like we do in Tulsa, if you decide you're going to cut out service in this area or that area, they don't have a way to get there," Cartwright said.
But where is there? In the city council meeting, Cartwright told councilors that 54 percent of riders use the bus system to make it to work, while another 11 percent use the system to get to school.
However, at the meeting, Councilor Blake Ewing spoke about other ideas for the bus system, citing as a concern a report of an arduous odyssey for someone trying to get to a grocery store from north Tulsa, which he said has a dearth of grocery stores.
"If it's making it impossible for people to use it for the regular everyday parts of their life, those are the things that I'm interested in addressing. Yes, work and school is important, but I would say purchasing fresh produce and dairy is important, and people aren't able to do that," Ewing said. He also offered a rhetorical question: "Are we ever going to provide a public transportation system in Tulsa that allows people to live without a car?"
Cartwright told UTW he expects to have the information requested by councilors within two to three weeks.
He said Tulsa Transit also works with the Indian Nations Council of Governments, which is considered a planning authority for the region. In October of last year, INCOG adopted a 25-year transportation plan that identified high-traffic corridors that might be appropriate for enhanced public transit.
Tulsa Transit was formed as a public trust in 1968 with $60,000 in city funds to continue service that had been abandoned by a private bus company.
While it relies on the city for funding, Cartwright's position is filled by the Tulsa Transit board -- so he reports to the board, rather than the city councilors or Mayor Dewey Bartlett.
When the city asked citizens to suggest projects that might be funded through the Vision2 proposal to extend a sales tax hike through 2029, roughly 320 submissions came in online during the three weeks immediately after the call for public input. About 10 responses described a desire to use Vision2 funds to improve the bus system.
"We did check on the Vision2 funding, but the message we got back from the city council was that they thought that the city's capital improvement projects, CIP, would be more appropriate for our funding needs," Cartwright said.
At the Sept. 13 meeting, councilors spoke somewhat vaguely about boosting funding for bus service.
Councilor Phil Lakin described how starting the process of studying bus service now could lead to a better-informed solution come June, when it's time to finalize yearly budgets.
"It's better to start now than try to do this ... [in June] to get you the kind of funding that you're requesting," Lakin said.
In an interview, Cartwright mused about funding challenges faced by Tulsa Transit.
"A lot of cities have a special allocation. They'll have a one-cent sales tax or a half-cent sales tax that's dedicated for transit operations. That would be terrific to have something like that, because then you can plan ahead years in advance much better than we can," Cartwright said.
Cartwright said fares have held steady at $1.50 since 2009, which he called a "pretty average fare in the Midwest."
"Tulsa Transit has no plans right now to recommend any fare increase," he said.
As far as the systems philosophy, Cartwright put it this way: "We're here to deliver the best system that we can to serve as many people as possible. And the people that we're serving, the people that are currently using the system, their input means quite a bit to us. We feel like the final say in how the system looks should really be based on the input from the general public that rides the system, because they know what they're needs are better than someone else would."
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