A proposal to make Eau Claire Transit bus rides free for school-age children is unlikely to be part of upcoming budget talks for 2019 after the city councilman who proposed the idea agreed it needs more research.
Eau Claire Councilman Jeremy Gragert said during Monday night’s meeting that a planned in-depth study of the city’s transit system, which will be finished next summer, could provide insight into whether bus fares should be changed in the future for those in kindergarten through 12th grade.
“Looking at a budget for 2020 and incorporating this in, that is my gut feeling,” he said of the upcoming planning study’s findings.
Councilwoman Catherine Emmanuelle agreed she wouldn’t push for changes to children’s bus fares as part of 2019 budget talks, which will take place this fall.
In addition to waiting on deeper study into the issue, Emmanuelle said UW-Eau Claire’s contract to use city buses is up for renewal soon.
“That may have some kind of impact on the overall budget, so that should be a key component we take into consideration,” she said.
The council requested in mid-June that city staff study the potential of waiving K-12 bus fares — which brought the city $41,000 last year — and opportunities for collaborating with youth services agencies to promote bus use for children. In their research, city staff found fewer children were using Eau Claire Transit, but couldn’t pin down why.
City budget analyst Josh Solinger said K-12 ridership declined 28 percent between 2013 and 2017.
“What we’re less clear about is why this is occurring,” he told the council Monday night.
Fares didn’t change in those years, and service remained the same too. The city did find that transit passes bought by agencies that work with children were seeing less use.
“Once purchased, those passes, which can be used multiple times, are being increasingly underutilized over the past five years,” Solinger said.
Beyond that though, city staff ran into more unanswered questions and suggested that deeper study of K-12 ridership be added to a transit development plan that will be done by a consultant. That in-depth transit plan was already budgeted for about $90,000, and the city intends to select the company to do it by the end of this year so it will be finished in summer 2019.
Also during Monday’s meeting, city officials gave an update on efforts to bring Soo Line No. 2719 locomotive from the Duluth, Minn., museum — where it’s been for more than 11½ years — back to Eau Claire.
“The city of Eau Claire did repurchase our steam locomotive, so that’s where we are now,” Councilman David Strobel said.
An arrangement to temporarily store the locomotive and its tender for free on a rail spur that goes through a storage building at Banbury Place in Eau Claire has been reached, he said.
By the end of this month, the city expects to have bids from companies on how much it will cost to move the train to that storage site.
The small group working on 2719’s return is looking to raise funds to pay for transporting the locomotive and tender and then building a permanent shelter to display them.
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