A Springfield CU Transit bus parks at the Transit Center between Grant Avenue and Main Avenue in downtown Springfield May 10, 2022. (Photo by Rance Burger)

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It’s simply a conversation at this point, but the relationship between transportation and employment has some Springfieldians exploring ways to make the city’s bus system cheaper, or even free to ride.

A group of advocates who use public transit also want to make the buses available at more hours of the day, and at least one member of the Springfield City Council thinks more people would ride the bus to work or to the store if the system was easier to understand and marketed to the public.

Councilman Craig Hosmer brought up the cost of riding public transit buses, which ranges from $1.25 for a single ride for an adult, to $51 for a 60-ride ticket book with unlimited transfers. A full-time college student can buy a bus pass for one semester for $125. There are also rates for seniors, persons with disabilities, persons on Medicare, youth ages 5-18 and paratransit fares for individualized rides. The discussion came up in early May when the Springfield City Council discussed approaching the Community Foundation of the Ozarks for more funding for a program called “Let’s Get to Work.” One of the items that the program funds is bus passes for people looking for work at the Missouri Job Center.

“There’s sort of a disconnect,” Hosmer said. “You’ve got 2.7 percent unemployment, you’ve got 25 percent poverty; something is not working.”

Why care?

If you're paying an electric, water or natural gas bill in Springfield, you're helping to pay for City Utilities to operate the CU Transit bus system. Along with a lack of child care availability, transportation is the most common barrier between job applicants and steady employment.

Springfield Director of Workforce Development Sally Payne said lack of transportation and a lack of available child care are the top two barriers that prevent people from getting to work and maintaining steady employment.

“We've helped people with gas cards, bus passes, car repairs, down payments on vehicles, tax, title and license, and initial insurance payments — all so they can maintain employment and look for work,” Payne said.

Hosmer believes that transportation should not be a barrier between people and a job. As the cost of rental housing, apartments and townhomes goes up across Springfield, people search for houses that are affordable and jobs with higher wages, and the two do not always go together geographically.

“One of the problems they’ve identified is you don’t have transportation from north Springfield to a lot of jobs in south Springfield,” Hosmer said. “I think you want something to make it a lot easier to get from Point A to Point B in the city.”

Making the best use of buses

Bus riders often have to change buses at the City Utilities Transit Center off of Main Avenue. (Photo by Rance Burger)

Hosmer said the City Utilities bus system, commonly marketed as “The Bus,” has been an item of off-and-on discussion for about a year and a half. The councilman believes the buses aren’t used to their full potential, and that many Springfield residents don’t know how they work.

“Right now, the buses, I think, are underutilized. Anytime you look at a bus, they’re very frequently half full or not that much,” Hosmer said. “A lot of people just don’t use it because they don’t know the protocol.”

Hosmer said officials with City Utilities have been open to discussions of making the bus service more accessible, more efficient and more user friendly.

“Springfield is built so spread out that we’ve never had a really good public transit system, but I think you get better when more people start using it, but right now there is some disconnect,” Hosmer said. “I don’t know much about how the fare works. Do you have to have cash? Do you have to have change? You know, it would be a lot easier and I think a lot more people would use it if there would be a pass that you could buy for $10 a year.”

Hosmer was also clear that he does not believe the bus system is being mishandled, but that the transit system might need some reinvention.

“City Utilities has done a great job with their bus system, and I know they operate that at a loss, but that does seem like that's something we should push to see if we can get that done, because I think that would help a lot of people,” Hosmer said.

Monday-Friday, City Utilities buses run from 6 a.m. to 6:35 p.m., then switch to more limited evening routes from 6:10 p.m. to 11:10 p.m. Buses also run limited routes on Saturdays and Sundays, with the Sunday start time moving to 7:10 a.m., and the Holiday hours limited from 8:10 a.m. to 6:10 p.m.

As of March 31, Springfield City Utilities budgeted for the transit service to operate at a $5.8 million loss for the fiscal year ending June 30. Chief Financial Officer Amy Derdall reported to the Springfield Board of Public Utilities that the operating loss was $5.6 million at the board's meeting on April 28.

Electric, natural gas and water customers subsidize the public transit system in Springfield each year. The 2020 Agency profile for CU Transit, filed with the Federal Transit Administration, shows that City Utilities spent $9.44 million to operate the transit system in 2020. Records show that only $724,693 came from fares and direct revenue, while $4.68 million came from local funds, $3.99 million came from federal funds, and CU Transit got $43,401 in operating funds from the state of Missouri.

Inside one of City Utilities' new electric buses in December, 2021. (Photo by Bruce Stidham)

In 2020, City Utilities also spent a total of $992,374 in capital funds (funds for infrastructure, equipment or vehicles), with $154,008 sourced from bus fares and $838,366 coming from federal assistance.

Springfield’s transit system is unique in that the utility department oversees its operations.

“They’re the only municipality-owned utility in the country that provides transportation services,” Hosmer said.

Bus passes for job seekers

The Missouri Job Center isn't the only game in town when it comes to providing assistance to job seekers or people looking to reenter the workforce after a lapse, but it has some layers of accountability that employers appreciate.

“We do case manage (clients), we enroll them in our programs, we follow up with them, we help them job search just to make sure the funding is being utilized appropriately,” Payne said.

Payne gave an example of a person who came to the Missouri Job Center in Springfield upon release from a Missouri Department of Corrections prison in Fordland. The person came to a hiring event on a Wednesday and got hired for a job on the same day. The problem was that they had to be at work at 10 a.m. on a Monday, and had no means of transportation and no driver's license.

“We worked with that individual Thursday and Friday, purchased a scooter for them to get to work by 10 a.m. on Monday, which is the perfect scenario of how it's supposed to work,” Payne said.

Sometimes a bus pass is the best option for a person who does not own a vehicle, or is working to reapply for a driver’s license. Payne said when the Missouri Job Center buys a Springfield bus pass for a job seeker, it usually buys the $51 pass for 60 ride tickets with unlimited transfers.

Grassroots group takes action

Josh Mayfield runs the social media accounts, designs the online graphics and is one of the core organizers of Free Fare SGF, a grassroots activist organization that got rolling in February to advocate for a Springfield bus system that is free to ride for passengers.

“The intent is getting the city to basically provide what we deem is a necessary infrastructure for the people,” Mayfield said. “It seems infrastructure is always forthcoming when it suits business, but we have vital pieces of infrastructure, especially social infrastructure that are sorely lacking.”

On one of City Utilities' new electric buses on January 7, 2022. (Photo by Bruce Stidham)

Transportation is a topic that comes up on just about any job application, and Mayfield notes that hardships tied to transportation can keep a job seeker from making their situation better.

“It's well known that one of the biggest barriers to employment is access to reliable transportation,” Mayfield said. “You know, you get asked that on every job application, ‘Do you have access to reliable transportation?’”

Mayfield and other organizers from Free Fare SGF paid close attention to what advocates for homeless and impoverished Springfieldians are saying about transportation.

“That was a gigantic barrier for so many people being able to get back on track,” Mayfield said. “One of them is, as was mentioned, equity, making sure that everybody has access to good alternatives to affording a car, because some people just can't afford a car.”

Mayfield said he and other Free Fare SGF members interviewed bus riders at the CU Transit Center downtown near the intersection of Grant Avenue and Olive. In addition to fares and the uncertainty of navigating the bus routes, the hours of bus operations were a sore spot for people who use public transportation.

“’With the hours of operation, I can't make this work,’” Mayfield paraphrased. “I even had some personal experience with that.”

For a time, Mayfield and his wife had one vehicle. His wife worked at Battlefield Mall, and went to work three hours earlier than her husband had to report to his job.

“We ended up in this absurd situation,” Mayfield said, going on to describe how he would wake up early in the morning, drive his wife to work, then return home to wait until it was time to drive himself to work. His wife would then take a bus home from her job at the mall as he continued his work day.

Mayfield and Hosmer both took some encouragement that the Springfield City Council and the Board of Public Utilities will hold a joint meeting at a date that is to be announced. One of the key topics of discussion for that meeting will be the bus system, according to Springfield City Manager Jason Gage.

“They are going to do a more comprehensive evaluation of the entire bus system program as well, and it includes questions like free passes and other things, so it will help to get some data to that conversation,” Gage said.

Rance Burger

Rance Burger is the managing editor for the Daily Citizen. He previously covered local governments from February 2022 to April 2023. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia with 17 years experience in journalism. Reach him at rburger@hauxeda.com or by calling 417-837-3669. Twitter: @RanceBurger More by Rance Burger