Who controls the cost data for JoCo bus transit?

by Will Hoerl

Johnson County (JoCo) has a county-funded transit system, overseen by the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC). JoCo bus routes are not ubiquitous (they tend to run mainline routes) but many of these routes provide a needed service for folks who don’t have, or may not always want to use, a personal vehicle.   

Over the years several routes have become popular, while others withered from lack of ridership. In order to maintain a service that provides the most benefit to the most people, it requires review and analysis of cost – in terms of cost per rider and cost per route. No county (not even JoCo) can afford to run transit buses on routes that have few riders or routes where the cost per route is too high.  

In the JoCo BOCC weekly meeting on Feb 8, 2024 (watch the live meeting  >> live media << ), a resolution came to the floor to authorize the purchase of 5 new “low-floor,”  “wheelchair accessible,”  30-foot, diesel transit buses. Josh Powers (director of JoCo Transit Division) came to the podium to provide staff testimony and support for the resolution.       

Commissioner Ashcraft asked Powers, “What happens if we don’t do this?”  (do the buses fall apart, do we use other buses, etc.) Powers explained the retirement schedule used to determine when to “retire” and replace a bus.    

Ashcraft asks about “vehicle cost review processes” and then asks if Josh Powers’ department leverages the expertise of Chris Butler’s group (JoCo Fleet Services).
Context Note: (Butler and his team do extensive and well-regarded analysis for vehicle maintenance and replacement schedules for JoCo vehicle fleets, and often provide updates to the BOCC).

Mr. Powers seems to evade Ashcraft’s question.

Ashcraft asks again.   

Mr. Powers then states that the expert group Ashcraft references was NOT used to ascertain costs and cost benefits.  

Commissioner O’Hara mentions “three empty [JoCo] buildings on 87th street,” and asks Josh Powers if he has had any interdepartmental communication on using the potential for using that transit line as employee transit to perhaps utilize the existing JoCo building for ‘mental health’ facilities, as opposed to building a new $113,000,000 centralized Mental Health facility.

Mr. Powers confirms that he has not had this conversation.

Ashcraft (again) re-states his position that Mr. Powers would do well to “leverage the expertise of Chris Butler’s group”. Ashcraft insists that an accurate evaluation of the “prime price point” for the appropriate age to replace buses is critical. Ashcraft says he is “supportive of this measure”; however, he would like to see better cross-departmental use of expertise between Powers’ staff and the Fleet Services staff in JoCo.

O’Hara makes one final request…that Josh Powers send (after the meeting at his convenience) an update on the cost per trip for the JoCo transit.  

The motion is called to a vote and passes  7-0.

This resolution was passed; however, questions on cost remain unanswered.     

Commissioner O’Hara’s request for “cost per trip” went to Josh Powers (via email). However, it appears Mr. Powers will NOT provide the requested cost data.  

Mr. Powers’ reply to Commissioner O’Hara indicates that the data O’Hara requested was “not readily available.”  Powers then suggested that “under the Rules of Order you [O’Hara] would need to seek the approval of the majority of the Board to pursue this request.”   “You would need to follow the adopted procedure and your request would need to pertain to the operations of county government“.  

Three issues leap to the forefront with regard to Powers’ response to O’Hara. 

1)   Powers’ reply suggests that the ‘cost per trip’ data is “not readily available.” This begs the question…”WHY is this data not readily available??” Knowing how much it costs “per trip” to run a bus would seem like basic cost evaluation data that someone should know. 

2)   A county commissioner asking for the “cost per trip” of a county-provided bus service, would seem to meet the “pertain to the operations of county government” criteria.

3)  What would cause a JoCo staff director to provide what appears to be a rather obstinate reply, instead of offering a timeline, and perhaps even staff cost to provide this data, to allow a reasonable discussion about the cost/benefit of the request?    

Powers’ reply does not indicate that the requested data is ‘impossible’ or even ‘difficult’ to provide, rather Mr. Powers states that it is “not readily available” . . . but then . . . goes on to say he does not have to provide it without a ‘majority vote’ of the BOCC.    

One can only hope that Mr. Powers misunderstood the nature of Commissioner O’Hara’s request,  and/or that the wording in his reply was an unfortunate choice of words.  If this turns out to be the case, then we (taxpayers) can relax a bit and let the wheels of county governance run their process. 

If not, however, if there is indeed staff resistance to providing what appears to be a reasonable request for cost data, then the taxpayers of JoCo have a potentially much bigger problem to deal with. 

JoCo staff are not elected, but they control the data and access to the data.  If that staff role turns into a ‘tug-of-war’ contest with elected officials, rather than a collaborative effort, then taxpayers may need to get more involved in ensuring that the county has staff that is “responsive” to both elected officials and to those who actually pay the salaries.  

***   The live meeting can be viewed here *** and the briefing sheet can be viewed here


… This particular portion of the meeting starts at about the 45-minute mark of the video

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