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City officials re-examine bus route following downtown bus stop fights

BY ALISON SULLIVAN | MAY 10, 2012 6:30 AM

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Andrea Gathings settles into her usual place at the back of the bus. The 16-year-old is riding the Lakeside route heading toward the Southeast Side. Soon she's surrounded by friends and classmates.
As the Iowa City bus departs from the Old Capitol Town Center location, the tall, reserved African-American girl periodically joins the conversations her friends share among the purple-speckled seats.

The noise quickly escalates as the city bus rounds the corner to Clinton Street, and the bus driver loses his patience. The teenagers hear a sharp tapping noise over the speaker system as he signals them to be quiet.

Andrea shrugs. She's aware of the attention some of her peers have brought to the Old Capitol mall bus stop — referring to the noise and outbreak of fights that caught police attention in late 2011.

"Some students have tried to behave more," she says.

But today, there's no sign of that. One white passenger turns around and yells at the teens to be quiet.

Emeril Green, another African-American student, tries to shush the group. Earlier that day, the 15-year-old and a friend were kicked off her transfer bus to school for being too loud.

She doesn't want to walk again.

The fights and reported bad behavior on bus routes prompted the Iowa City police to beef up their presence earlier in the year on the buses and at the downtown stop — causing frustration for many of the African-American students and discussion among Iowa City officials about transportation issues.

Old Capitol fights

Between 3:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. every school day, groups of mostly African-American youth congregate at the Old Capitol mall bus stop after school to transfer to a bus home. Many live on the Southeast Side.

From August 2011 to March 28, Iowa City police have responded to eight juvenile-related calls at the mall location between 3 and 6 p.m., according to police documents.

Cordaro Pearson, who takes the bus in the morning, said sometimes he sees police officers hovering on the second level of the mall. The 15-year-old said officers watch the students from above as they wait inside for the bus.

City Councilor Jim Throgmorton said officials should be aware of the perceptions students have of the officers.

"I think we need to have a balance of effective enforcement of laws," Throgmorton said.

Gathings, along with her family, originally moved to Iowa City to avoid trouble and crime.

"Our neighborhood was a little rough," Gathings said. "My mom moved to Iowa to not let us grow up around that environment. She wanted us to be in a better, safer environment."

Today, many of the students say they feel "forced" to be at the Old Capitol mall, where they must transfer buses from local high schools and junior highs to home each day.

"High-schoolers don't really want to be there," said Crystal Alft, an AmeriCorps volunteer at the Broadway Neighborhood Center. "They kind of wish there was a faster way to get home."

Alft runs a media club at the center, a group of fourth- to seventh-grade students who conducted a small-scale survey in February with bus riders at the Old Capitol Town Center. The group interviewed 70 members of the community; a little more than half of respondents were middle- or high-school students who rode buses.

The survey asked students whether they would rather take a school or city bus straight to their homes after school instead of going downtown. Thirty-five students said they preferred a more direct route, while seven said they didn't.

Naeema McDowell said a more direct route would cut down on transfers.

"I've been struggling to get to work and school, because if I don't have the money, I can't get to school," the 17-year-old said.

Twenty-five of the students in the survey said their commutes took less than an hour, while 10 said it took more than an hour.

"Everyone just kind of agrees that the busing situation is flawed," Alft said. "They shouldn't have to go [to Old Capitol] just to transfer on a bus to go home."

The survey also showed 40 respondents agreed with the statement that transportation was a barrier when trying to get to and from school on time.

McDowell said she and her classmates are sometimes late to their first class because of buses being behind schedule.

"The route to school should not be a barrier," Susan Freeman-Murdah, the director of the Broadway Neighborhood Center, told The Daily Iowan in January. "That's the one we should be able to fix."

Southeast Side

James Mims, a youth-program coordinator at the Broadway Neighborhood Center, remembers growing up on the Southeast Side of Iowa City. More than 15 years ago, he said, he often took public transportation to get to City High.

Mims' home was within the three-mile radius of a state-regulated boundary in which schools are not required to bus kids to and from school. However, the walk, he said, seemed "forever for me in high school."

Mims said he remembers the option to take a school bus was available if his family paid $250 a year.

Joan VandenBerg, a youth-development coordinator for the Iowa City School District, said the district provides special bus routes, though there are not many routes running because of low demand. Today, families who want to utilize the service can pay anywhere from $300 to $500 depending on the number of students in the family. Reduced fees are also available for students on the free- and reduced-lunch program.

Transportation for work, school, and shopping has been labeled as an nonaddressed problem since the Broadway-Cross Park's original study in 1999.

Angie Jordan, a family coordinator at the Broadway Neighborhood Center, said transportation is always the No. 1 problem for residence and the center.

"The families we work with don't come [to events] because they can't find transportation," said Jordan, who mainly works with new families in the neighborhood.

The number of people in the area has been growing much faster than Iowa City as a whole.

According to the study, from 1990 to 2009, the Southeast Side area grew approximately 30 percent compared with roughly 12 percent growth overall in Iowa City.

The Southeast Side area includes the Grant Wood, Saddlebrook, Pepperwood, Wetherby, Broadway, and Hilltop areas.

In the study, many participants' top concerns included transportation. The study said many have signed petitions to change the time of operation for public transportation, "though nothing has come from it."

Sandra Mason, a student at the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning, took part in collecting data for the updated study. She said residents are trying to bring attention to needed changes in their area but often feel they're going unheard.

"There's only so much ordinary citizens can do," she said.

Transportation solutions

Iowa City's Transportation Department does not know how many riders get off and on at each stop, because no one has ever collected such data for route planning. But officials say that will change as data for the department's first "master plan" study is released this summer. And high-school students may see changes to the bus routes as soon as this fall.

Chris O'Brien, director of Iowa City Transportation Services, said he recently began meeting with community members to discuss routes that service the southeastern neighborhoods, something he intends to continue.

"We need to do a better job of reaching out to all parts of the community," he said.

Officials are looking at several routes, including a possible extension of the East Side loop, which was originally established more than 15 years ago to service school crowds better.

Marcia Bollinger, an Iowa City neighborhood coordinator, said though the route had undergone minor tweaks since it was established, it is likely overdue for a re-examination. The route is one of the few that does not go to the downtown stop.

Most bus routes run on a "hub-and-spoke" system, which focuses on an economic central location — downtown.

O'Brien said the last adjustments made to the East Side loop were minor changes several years ago.

The Metropolitan Planning Organization uses the only bus-stop data the department collects for mandatory federal reports every three years. Officials placed transit workers on buses and physically counted passengers getting on and off at specific stops.

The sampling tracks the miles a passenger rides from one point to another and is included in federal reports, said Kent Ralston, assistant transportation planner with the Metropolitan Planning Organization of Johnson County.

A large player in the possible changes are the use of automatic passenger counters the department installed last year on five buses. The counter uses sensors to track when passengers get on and off at a specific stop — data never before collected by the department. The automatic passenger counters cost $3,100 each.

Though the department collects such data as miles per gallon and the number of trips per mile, O'Brien said, that doesn't fully determine a stop's efficiency.

With Iowa City's relatively small transit operation, Bart Cramer, a UI urban and regional planning adjunct assistant professor, isn't surprised the data haven't been collected before.

"To an extent, [transportation] is just as much an art as a science," he said.

Funding remains an issue for most municipal transportation departments, which run at some sort of loss. With fares rarely covering the full transportation costs that cities need, many rely on federal funding and grants to cover the remaining costs, Cramer said.

Recent funding reductions have forced city officials to increase fares, beginning July 1, a move that hasn't happened in more than 15 years. One-way fares will be bumped from 75 cents to $1. A student semester pass will increase from $80 to $100.

Though Southeast Side citizens said they understand cost, Mason said citizens were frustrated at the sight of money going toward other city projects.

"I think they just want to have a solution," Mason said. "They understand funding does play a role in getting things done. But at the same time, it's sort of confusing when you have funding for other parts of town, but [the city] is not sending that funding to that part of town."

Whatever the solution, someone will likely feel left out, Bollinger said.

"Changing a bus route is often controversial, because there will be one person who takes that bus because they had access to that bus to get wherever they need to go," she said. "It really needs to be well thought through."

O'Brien said any potential changes would need to be approved by Iowa City City Council.

But before any change garners approval, officials will have to make sure any extensions or time changes in the routes remain in line with the School District's schedule.

"We want to make sure that nothing is going to change for this upcoming fall that would make any route changes or schedule changes we make be ineffective," O'Brien said.

Several people agree that the schools should play some part.

School District

Iowa City School District officials say there's not enough money.

VandenBerg said the district can't do much to alleviate the situation. Officials try to provide bus passes to help more students take the bus ? but it's an increasing need she cannot often meet.

"We used to be able to do more for students who were just low income," she said. "Not necessarily homeless, but we just don't have the funding."

This year, the district received $6,600 in state and federal funds for passes to access municipal public transportation. The district can hand out 31-day passes as well as single rides. The majority of the need comes from Tate High — Iowa City's alternative high school, she said.

Putting more money into transportation is unlikely, she said.

"Do we spend money on transportation, or do we spend that money in the classroom?" she said. "It's a complicated and expensive [issue] to fix."

Student responses

Students now say police presence has diminished at the Old Capitol Town Center since earlier in the year. Gathings said what were once weekly police visits to the bus stop have turned into periodic visits every few weeks.

But for City High student McDowell, getting home is still her biggest concern.

"I can get home and do my homework," she said. "I just want to have more time."

Bollinger said though the episodic fights that prompted discussion among officials and more outreach into the community have decreased, city officials still remain focused on how they can better serve students.

"The needs of the students are the issue now," she said.


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