Work to craft a master plan for Lawton’s mass transit system will help LATS win federal transportation funding, officials said Thursday.
Hendrickson Transportation Group, which manages LATS for the City of Lawton, has held a series of meetings while also conducting a rider survey to find out exactly what residents want in their mass transit system, now in its 18th year. Extensive research was done before LATS began operations to plot fixed routes that would most benefit riders, but few major changes have been made in the years since.
While ridership has declined since LATS’ peak year of 2014 (where almost 450,000 riders were recorded) the system had been averaging about 30,000 riders a month until the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic forced drastic changes that limited ridership. The system reported about 275,000 riders in 2020, compared to about 330,000 in 2019. But, numbers are on the rise again.
LATS General Manager Ryan Landers and Hendrickson President John Hendrickson said LATS’ ridership has continued to increase as more residents discover the benefits of the system’s fixed routes, paratransit (curb to curb) service and Fort Sill shuttle. Last week, the City Transit Trust (a function of the City Council) approved a new year-long contract with Lawton Public Schools, an agreement that allows LPS students and staff to ride fixed route buses any time they operate without charge, by showing their school identification badges.
Landers said the purpose of surveys and meetings is to craft a formal mass transit plan, which will give the system an edge when seeking federal funding. Those transportation grants are important because local funding accounts for about 25 percent of LATS expenditures; the remainder comes from state and federal sources, and passenger fares. In a normal year, the City of Lawton covers 50 percent of operating expenditures and 20 percent of capital outlay, but the federal government has covered 100 percent of operating costs in the last two years because of COVID-19.
Landers, noting additional funding that will be available in federal stimulus and transportation bills, said Hendrickson wants LATS to be ready to move immediately on grant applications, which is why officials want input on issues such as redesigning routes, expanding services, vehicles and an indoor transfer center to replace the outdoor one on Southwest B Avenue in downtown Lawton.
The system’s top priority is that indoor transfer center, Landers said, adding it also will contain maintenance and operations offices now located in south Lawton.
“We lease our property now. It’s more beneficial to own it,” he said.
City officials won’t comment on the new location. Landers said that’s because negotiations still are under way. But, he confirmed they are looking at downtown Lawton, something 80 percent of survey respondents also want. The City Council had voted to designate the old Lawton Police Station at Southwest 4th and B for the transfer center, but that site has been discarded because of what critics say is a conflict with the Lawton Farmers’ Market being built to the west.
Lawton Public Library Director Kristin Herr said she liked the idea of using the old police station site for the same reason she likes the location on Southwest B Avenue: both are close to the library and bring many patrons into the library.
“We want people to get to us,” she said, adding while she insists new bathrooms be built, she wants the transfer center to remain downtown.
“We all agree it needs to be downtown,” Landers said, adding that location fits into city plans to breath new life into that area. “As soon as you bring in transit, businesses flock there.”
Herr said the benefits mass transit brings to patrons is why she supports the system, explaining the library is the only place riders can purchase bus passes on Saturdays and that the library installed a coin machine in its lobby specifically for riders who need exact change for fares. Herr said library programs already benefit (she estimated one-third of those who come to the library to have their taxes done have no transportation) and she would like later bus hours to support other programs, such as English as Second Language and computer classes.
“We know transportation is a barrier,” she said.
Landers said the system will look at other issues, to include alternate fuels — such as electricity —for buses. Officials already are discussing changes to fixed routes.
“We need to increase frequency,” he said, explaining many potential riders don’t want to wait for an hour to take a bus. “We need to take a hard look at where we need to go.”
And, that means potentially expanding service, he said, suggesting more on-demand transportation and intercity service to Oklahoma City and Wichita Falls, Texas. Officials also continue to explore another years-old request: shuttle service to Lawton’s west industrial park. Landers said those who attended Thursday’s stakeholder meeting “really, really want it.”
John Henrickson said efforts to create a master plan work is simply putting building blocks in place to create “an efficient and effective” service. And, that means deciding what makes the most sense for the community today and in the future.
Hendrickson Vice President R.J. Garza said mass transit is more than transporting riders “from Point A to Point B.” It is linked to economic development: having a way to work means…
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