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OLATHE, Kan. — Bus routes in Johnson County will soon be getting an upgrade.

Johnson County Transit (JCT) was allocated approximately $18.2 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds through the the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSAA), and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

JCT has used roughly $3 million in CARES Act funding for COVID relief. 

Now the transportation agency plans to use the remaining $15.2 million to expand services throughout the county. 

On Thursday, the Johnson County Board of Commissioners voted 5-2 to approve four new pilot programs to address fixed routes, commuter express, microtransit and paratransit services in Johnson County. 

JCT will spend roughly $3.8 million over the next five years to implement the programs. 

“If this funding is not used by us, it’s going to be used by somebody else. I think we have a need and there is [a] reason for us to be able to use this funding,” Commissioner Jeff Meyers said. 

Josh Powers, business liaison for Johnson County Transit, said transit ridership has been greatly impacted by the pandemic. Powers said the pilot programs will use 2019 as a reference for ridership numbers when measuring the success of each program. 

One pilot program will shorten all express routes to three morning and three evening trips. Powers said by shifting all express routes to begin and end near the highway, travel time can be cut down by roughly 10%. 

Express Service Reduction

One of the pilot programs will add a mid-day service to all bus routes throughout the week and create a new bus route along the 87th Street Corridor. 

Powers said in the transit industry it typically takes 3-5 years to determine if a route will be successful or not.

The new route along the 87th Street Corridor will be benchmarked based on route 495, which was introduced in 2016. The 495 route that follows 95th Street had roughly 12,000 annual riders within the first three years. 

The program will also focus on expanding transit schedules on the four most popular routes in the county. Under the pilot program 401 Metcalf-Plaza, 403 Antioch-Olathe, 404 Metcalf-Downtown and 475 Quivira-75th Street will be available on Saturdays. 

Keely Schneider, executive director for Workforce Partnership, said expanding transportation options can increase access to job training and other resources for people seeking employment. 

“These new initiatives and efforts will not only improve access to jobs for low income individuals and others with barriers, but also increase access to many of the necessary training resources and supportive services those individuals need to be successful in the labor market,” Schneider said. 

Schneider said the creation of a new bus route along 87th Street would give people access to employment hubs and community resources like the Johnson County Workforce Center and the county library. 

The pilots are expected to expand the service area within the county on various routes by roughly 50 miles. 

One pilot program includes plans to expand the current micro transit service zone and increase the cost per trip. Microtransit services allow riders to be picked up at a select location not along an existing bus route. 

The pilot program would split the current service area into two zones and increase the fare based on individual trips. Trips within one zone would be $3 and a trip between the two zones would be $5. The pilot would also offer micro transit services on Sundays.

Commissioners Michael Ashcraft and Charlotte O’Hara voted against creating the pilot programs. O’Hara said she felt with ridership being low, expansion of the transit system would not be a good use of taxpayer dollars.

“People have laughed about the empty buses running around.Fixed routes just do not seem to work. To throw more money at it, whether it’s federal or local, seems to be extremely irresponsible,” O’Hara said. 

Commissioner Becky Fast raised concerns about the sustainability of transit fares and requested the commission review the fare structure and the progress of the pilot programs next year. 

By using federal funding to expand the mid-day routes, the county is required to offer complementary paratransit services. Powers said the pilot program will use $750,000 in federal funding to help transport people with disabilities who physically cannot use the existing bus routes. 

“That service is there to help vulnerable populations get where they need to go. We believe that it’s the right thing to do and it’s a service that we have kind of skirted for a number of decades,” Powers said. 

Powers said over the next 90 days Johnson County Transit will be hosting a series of town halls and events to get public feedback on the pilot programs. The pilot programs will likely launch in the spring of 2022.