The Ottumwa Courier

March 20, 2013

River Hills: stay downtown or go outside city limits?

City council considers options to change bus routes, alleviate congestion downtown

Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — River Hills Community Health Center hasn’t left downtown yet, and city officials are hoping to keep it that way.

At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation President and CEO Brad Little said River Hills is “in a tight timeframe” on whether to move forward with its plan to construct a new facility outside city limits or to remain downtown.

“Over the past several months, it’s no secret that Rick Johnson [River Hills CEO] and his board are considering options to expand the facility, most of that including building a new facility on Hutchinson,” Little said.

This discussion led to the question: What efforts did the city to make to keep River Hills downtown? Little, Johnson, City Administrator Joe Helfenberger and Curtis Architecture owner Rod Curtis met to address this question.

“Before moving out to Hutchinson becomes a foregone conclusion, we wanted to vet that,  so wherever River Hills decides it needs to be, we can make sure that all of us as a community can say that’s the best place for them and we’ve explored all options,” Little said.

Right now, the aforementioned team is looking at building options downtown for River Hills to expand, though Little could not elaborate.

“It’s sensitive now,” he said. “[Johnson] needs an answer by the end of April or sooner. The ultimate goal is to see if there’s a way to keep River Hills downtown or go out on Hutchinson.”

While there are properties available downtown, Little said he’s not sure the dollars will align.

“Even though there’s a greenfield opportunity on Hutchinson and a need for infrastructure out there, it’s appearing that things downtown would not offset that,” he said. “I’m not sure we can get those two numbers close enough.”

Councilman Bob Meyers said hopefully as the discussion of River Hills potentially staying downtown re-opens, a two- or three-story downtown complex will “come back into the realm of possibility, as opposed to giving up a lot of land to a non-profit.”

Tweaking bus routes

The council also heard from Bob Bourne, retired Ames Transit System administrator, who recently completed a route review for Ottumwa Transit.

“You have a nice system here,” Bourne said. “It functions well, it gets lots of people to jobs and schools. It’s a very effective system the way it is now.”

But some minor changes could be made to amp up ridership and avoid a plateau, he said.

“What’s driving the increase [in ridership] is the airport route, the Job Corps riders on that,” he said. “It’s gone from 4,000 to 26,000 in a one-year period. But eventually that’s going to plateau.”

If Ottumwa Transit chooses not to change its routes, it will have no negative impact on passengers, Bourne said.

“But you’re going to hit a plateau sometime this year where your ridership — that 20 percent growth you’ve been having — will flatten out to whatever it settles at,” he said. “There’s very little growth potential on that.”

One suggested way to increase ridership is unlimited access to Indian Hills students, where the college would pay a fixed price that would allow all students to ride free. This, in turn, would increase ridership, he said, which would then increase state and federal funding.

Minimal changes to the current system would keep it at 13 trips on each route per day at 50 minute intervals. But it would add a lunch hour trip on the airport route, where there is currently a two-hour gap. The second change would take the south residential route directly to Quincy Place Mall instead of the downtown bus stop. During his review, Bourne also heard a lot of requests for an evening demand service from 6-11 p.m. Monday through Friday.

“This could be a precursor to a fixed route,” he said. “We received many comments from passengers who have entry-level jobs and get done at 7 or 8 at night, then have to get a $10 ride home in a taxi.”

More significant changes to the system would get rid of route duplication and expand the area buses service. These changes could have the potential for a decrease in ridership, though, he noted, because it would lower daily trips from 13 to 11 on each route.

Changes in this proposal would reduce activity at the downtown bus stop, he said.

Adding a lunch hour trip would reduce waiting time downtown, as would parking buses right outside Ottumwa High School, rather than having the students flood down the East Second Street hill when school lets out to wait around downtown for 20 minutes before their bus arrives.

But right now, 35 percent of Ottumwa Transit’s ridership is K-12 students, “so we don’t want to mess that up at all,” he said.

“You’re the biggest growing system in the state, without a doubt,” he said. “You got an increase in state and federal funding this year, and you’re going to get another next year. I encourage you to reinvest that in the system.”