September 13, 2018. The Topeka Capital-Journal.

A pilot transportation project helping workers get to jobs in south Topeka has been so successful that it is running out of funds, and the Joint Economic Development Organization agreed Wednesday to add $7,800 to finish out the year.

The SOTO Ride-to-Work program launched in late December to offer $5 rides from anywhere within the Topeka city limits to employees working at a number of south Topeka businesses, including Bimbo Bakeries, Home Depot, Target and Mars.

At this point, the program has funded 5,899 rides to seven different employers, said Barbara Stapleton, vice president of workforce and education for the Greater Topeka Partnership.

“We have employees that for the first time in their lives, they can work a full-time job,” she told the JEDO board. “Not only that, they say, ‘You have changed my life.’ ”

The SOTO, short for south Topeka, transportation initiative was started because it was cost prohibitive to add a traditional bus route, but there was a need to provides rides for shift work that is important to local employers. Through Capitol City Taxi, users book rides, then pay $5 one way. Funding of $70,000 provided by JEDO for the pilot made up the difference between the $5 and whatever the cab fare is.

“It’s as simple as picking up the phone and making a reservation for pickup at your home,” said Susan Duffy, general manager of Topeka Metro.

Stapleton told JEDO the additional monies, which the board approved, would allow them to assess a complete year of use.

“There is a rhythm to each company’s workforce and it’s throughout an entire year, and so to be able to complete the year would be extremely beneficial in giving us the data that we need to work on our next phase,” Duffy said.

Riders have reached out to say how important they find the program to be, she said.

“One gentleman who we have talked to, he’s the one who was only part time because he did not have a permanent transportation solution to get to work,” Duffy said. “Now that he is working full time, he’s receiving full-time benefits, the money he’s receiving is much more and he says his life has just really changed. We have heard that story over and over.”

Data collected from SOTO Ride-to-Work so far indicate that many riders are using the service from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. and from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., Duffy said.

The most expensive rides are from people who live north of town, and those run about $11 one way, leaving $6 for the program to cover, she said.

Shawnee County Commissioner Bob Archer questioned how the next phase of the program would be developed, including whether employers would be asked to contribute dollars as they benefit from access to more workers.

“That’s what we’re looking at next year, that they should,” Duffy said. “We’re not there yet to discuss exactly the details, but we believe we have the information to share with them that says for the little bit that this costs that perhaps they would want to offer this as some sort of incentive for folks. They’re all looking at the same group of employees to employ and retain, and once you train somebody, you have quite a bit of investment.”

Duffy said Thursday that the dollars JEDO approved would allow organizers time to brainstorm and look at how phase two can be set up and how companies can be involved.

The pilot has been “wildly successful” from her perspective.

The Rev. Anne Flynn, a deacon at Grace Episcopal Cathedral, spoke as a Topeka JUMP representative at the JEDO meeting and encouraged JEDO to continue funding for the program. About 20 other JUMP members attended.

“Tonight we can celebrate the extraordinary success of the investment this board made in the South Topeka Ride-to-Work program,” she said, adding that each of the rides represents “an individual who was able to access a good job with the pay and benefits to match.”

“Each of those rides also means that a company in south Topeka was able to fill a critical position,” Flynn said. “That increased economic activity helps the entire region and builds the local tax base.”

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