As Lextran prepares to implement changes to its schedule and gears up to move into a new $26 million headquarters in the first half of 2016, its board and general manager are thinking about the direction the public transportation system is going.
“I think we’re trying to be everything to everybody, and I don’t think it’s working out that well,” board member Augusta Julian, president and chief executive officer of Bluegrass Community and Technical College, said during a work session this month at which the discussion surfaced.
General manager Carrie Butler spoke of growing Lextran’s audience and raising fares, but several members of the board indicated that their priority is serving its current ridership, the members of the public who need the bus system the most.
Board members asked themselves questions about what Lextran’s ultimate purpose is and who it seeks to serve.
“Are we a utility where everybody with a light switch ought to have access, or are we a strategic business?” asked Board chairman Jeff Fugate, who is also president of the Downtown Development Authority.
In choosing areas the system ought to serve, he asked whether requests for service ought to be given preference based on economic development, the neediness of the riders or a certain geographic area.
“We don’t have a rubric to rate it against,” he said.
65 buses in Lextran’s fleet
Allen Biehler, executive director of the university transportation center at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, said such questions are not unique to Lextran.
As urban cores began “hollowing out” decades ago, Biehler said, jobs moved, freeways and personal automobiles became the major mode of transportation and it became “a challenge to serve areas with public transportation.”
“It’s a matter of deciding what works,” he said. “The community has to decide for itself what it wants the system to do.
“Where do people live? Where are the hospitals? Where are the schools?” Biehler said. “It takes a real honest look at the lay of the land.”
Fugate said Lextran has had difficulty capturing commuters, because Lexington, with major employers scattered over a wide area, lacks “that centralized commuter core.”
Rather than trying to capture more commuters, Fugate said Lextran could consider targeting what he considers riders “in need” — such as people who have a financial need and don’t own a car, those who can’t drive because of mobility problems, or those who need public transportation because of inadequate parking near their school or workplace.
“It seems like our competition … is when you have a rider in need who is stuck taking a cab home from Kroger” or using another transportation service other than Lextran, Fugate said.
Lextran’s mainline bus service runs from 5:30 a.m. to 12:30 a.m.
In a presentation to the board, Butler, who just completed her first year as general manager of Lextran, said the top three goals for the agency are to grow service, maximize resources and strengthen the resource base.
She spoke of raising fares, developing a fare structure that is indexed to the costs of operating.
“I would say we’re behind,” Butler said, noting that the last fare increase was nearly 15 years ago. “Relative to other places, our fare structure is still low.”
The regular fare is $1.
Board member Rick Christman, chief executive officer of Employment Solutions, questioned the need for an increase.
“We have continuing cash surpluses year after year,” he said. “It’s not the fare that we live on. It’s the property tax, and that naturally has grown.
“In our case, we’d be raising the rates after we cut service and built a $25 million building, which doesn’t go over well.”
He said that the economic need of many Lextran riders is shown by the fact that they pay $1 per ride rather than buying a pass because they can’t get $30 together to buy one.
“If we really don’t need it (the money from a fare increase), why would we do that, because it would hurt people,” he said.
Lextran contracts a door-to-door paratransit service through Red Cross Wheels.
Julian said the board should give further consideration to its goals, mission and priorities.
“Are we a social service or are we a transit company, or are we something else?” she said. “We are here for the people who need us.”
While the board oversees Lextran, the agency’s day-to-day operation is managed through a contract with TransDev, formerly known as Veolia Transportation.
Lextran is paying $300,958 for those services, or $25,080 a month, under the current one-year contract, which was approved by the board in August. The contract expires Oct. 31, 2016.
Butler and Lextran’s assistant general manager are both employees of TransDev.
She said recently that she was encouraged by the dialogue with the board.
“There’s more discussions to be had about how we picture ourselves, in how we serve the community,” she said.
And as the future direction of Lextran is considered, she said more service will likely be needed to adequately serve current ridership.
“At this point in time, we are a public transportation agency,” she said. “We have to serve as many people as we can.”