Director set high bar for CU bus system before death

 Amos Bridges, News-Leader
7:13 p.m. CST March 3, 2015

Read More Here

With a new transfer station due to be built and bus route changes sure to follow, 2015 is shaping up to be a big year for City Utilities' Transit Services.

Speaking to members of a rider advisory committee last month, Transit Director Kevin Lowe seemed eager to make the most of the opportunity. Lowe, who took the helm at the department in December, encouraged the riders to share their criticisms and ideas for improving the bus system.

"We are in the people-serving business, so if we are not performing up to your expectations, we need to know," he said, adding that even radical changes were worth discussing. "Our main goal is to get more people on the bus."

Impressed and intrigued, I made plans to meet with Lowe and talk about ways the newspaper might help get the conversation started. We were set to meet over coffee Feb. 24. But Lowe, who was 45, died of an apparent heart attack the night before.

I only knew Lowe professionally. A former Missouri Department of Transportation engineer, he was Greene County's highway administrator when I started working at the News-Leader. Our paths had crossed occasionally when he worked in the private sector and I covered city development and more recently when he went to work for CU.

Lowe struck me, during our interactions, as an energetic guy — not jump-up-and-down excited, necessarily, but positive and happy to tackle a challenge. That's why I think that, even for those who didn't know him, his death will be a loss.

Lowe certainly had accepted a challenge with the bus system, which for years has been the odd duck among CU's services. Springfield's City Charter requires the utility to manage the bus system. But unlike CU's water, gas and electricity operations, the transit department doesn't come close to paying for itself, relying instead on hefty subsidies from other departments to keep routes running.

In his meeting with the Fixed Route Advisory Committee last month, Lowe noted that only about $1 million of transit's $10 million budget came from rider fares. About $6.5 million came from revenue redirected from other CU departments, he said, with federal funding making up the rest.

"Is this ever going to be a money-making operation? No," he said. But increased ridership could help balance the equation.

The $1.25 fare established more than five years ago also might be due for a change, Lowe said, acknowledging that the current budget doesn't allow for new costs.

Despite the financial constraints, he encouraged the members of the advisory board to be free with the ideas.

"We know there are gonna be some route changes when the transfer station is done," Lowe said. Debated and delayed for the better part of a decade, the approximately $5 million transfer facility was put out for bid this month. Construction of the station near Main Avenue and College Street is expected to begin by late April. If all goes well, it could wrap up by the end of the year.

Kicking off the conversation with the advisory board in February, Lowe said one idea he wanted to explore is the addition of an express bus route running north and south through the city with limited stops. But he seemed equally interested in suggestions made by others.

Board member Greg Horchem offered half a dozen ideas for combining and expanding specific routes around the city and extending daytime service an hour, to 7 p.m. Most of the details were over my head, but Lowe nodded along in agreement and made sure staff members took good notes.

LesSandra Franklin, a board member who came to Springfield from New York, said the bus system at some point would have to tackle its image problem. While public transportation is seen as a way of life in larger cities, in Springfield buses are seen as a last resort, only for the desperate.

Lowe agreed, repeating his goal of attracting riders from all walks of life to city buses.

"You can make $10 million a year and we want you to ride the bus," he said.

Dale Shumaker, another board member, said he appreciated that Lowe had made a point of riding the bus himself and was asking for unvarnished feedback.

"My idea, and I voiced it, was that those who represent CU Transit in an official capacity should be out in the public more," he said. "A competent person is not afraid of hearing criticism …

"One thing that he said, and he said it two or three times, so it stuck with me, was, 'We need to hear from you. We're here to serve you so we need to hear from you.'"

Shumaker, who contacted me after hearing about Lowe's death from a bus driver, said he hopes Lowe's successor will adopt a similar approach.

Chris Jones, CU's associate general manager for IT and transportation, said that's the plan. "We'll try to keep a lot of those same ideas going forward."

"Kevin was very engaged. He was engaged with the drivers, with the passengers, with the staff," Jones said. "Now we have to try to find a replacement, which will be challenging."

Whoever ends up at the wheel, I hope they'll continue the conversation Lowe started. He had the bus pointed in the right direction and passengers were getting on board.