OCEAN CITY – A proposed wintertime scale down of the bus fleet in Ocean City could mean longer and unfortunately colder waits to catch a bus for residents.
At Tuesday’s City Council work session at City Hall, another round of cost cutting measures was proposed targeting the winter bus schedule, and in the end, enough changes were proposed to take the issue to a public hearing on Jan. 5.
Ocean City Public Works Director Hal Adkins brought a number of scenarios before the council and described the subtle changes that have already been implemented in order to cut costs, namely, this month’s experimental decision to trim the buses provided during each of the three bus shifts from four to three.
In doing so, the town projects that it will save a little more than $78,000.
“This has a tendency to be a bit confusing, but let me say, that going from four buses running at a time to three buses, still keeps a 30-minute headway for riders,” Adkins told the council.
Simply put, the buses on the “half hour” and “the hour” trend that many riders have come to expect is still holding true, despite these minor cuts, Adkins said. However, the proposed cuts didn’t stop there.
An additional $7,000 could be saved, according to Adkins, if the council decided to cut buses on the first and second shifts (the 6 a.m.-2 p.m. and the 2-10 p.m., respectively) from three buses to two. He also pitched ideas of trimming the third shift, or the nightliner bus, which runs from 10 p.m.-6 a.m., from two buses to one, or simply to do away with it altogether from Sunday to Thursday; and then using a shorter town-owned van or “short bus”, rather than the 35-foot buses that usually run on the weekends, thus saving a projected $40,000 more in fuel costs.
“I don’t feel comfortable not having at least one bus on the roads in the winter months, said Council President Joe Mitrecic. “We need to have at least one running for the people coming out of the bars and for the workers in the bars and restaurants that rely on the bus.”
Adkins stressed that trimming the bus schedule from three buses to two in the first two shifts would eliminate the 30-minute headway and create more of a rolling schedule for riders.
“We can’t guarantee the 30-minute headway if we cut the buses down to two. Depending on passenger loads, it would vary,” Adkins said. “We think it would be close, maybe 33 minutes, or 35 minutes, but we can’t guarantee the headway if we cut it to two.”
Furthermore, if the “nightliner” bus was further reduced to one, Adkins said that, “simple math would tell you that if two buses running at 30-minute headway, if trimmed to one, would be a 60-minute headway.”
Mayor Rick Meehan praised the initial cuts from four to three but questioned the value in further trimming of the bus schedule.
“I think the cuts have been great so far, but I don’t see how making these drastic cuts and only saving an additional seven or eight thousand dollars is really worth it for all the trouble put on our riders,” said the mayor. “How is there only another seven thousand in savings if we take three buses off the road, when there was $78,000 in taking the first three off the road?”
The town, according to Adkins, would have to pay approximated $10,000 in unemployment benefits when making the second round of cuts, but it’s a number that would only hold true for the first year. Next year, if these changes were implemented permanently, the $10,000 paid into unemployment would be savings for the town, he said.
City Manager Dennis Dare assured the council that no decision made was set in stone.
“This isn’t something that couldn’t be tweaked. If it doesn’t work out, you can obviously make changes to it as needed. The north end bus station is pretty visible and I’m tired of reading letters to the editor about buses just sitting there and wasting gas and taxpayer money. If they get off of the 30-minute headway, I’m pretty confident that they will get back on schedule very quickly,” Dare said.
In the end, the council decided to send a motion calling for an across-the-board reduction of city buses from three per shift to two per shift, from January to March, and the city will now advertise these proposed changes and notifying the Maryland Department of Transportation over the next month up until the planned public hearing on Jan. 5.
The late night riders of the bus could be the hardest hit, as the proposed changes could cause the biggest gaps in bus passes on a particular street, as 12 percent of riders use the bus on the third shift, city figures show. Yet, the third shift also sees its biggest downtime in riders in the hours of 3:30-6 a.m.
It still appears however, that the bottom line for the council is the “bottom line,” as Councilman Jim Hall pointed out.
“If the buses aren’t full, and less buses can do the job close to 30 minutes, we should do it, because it’s just good business,” he said.
Adkins stressed that the cuts were being done in a citywide effort to put all services provided by the town of Ocean City under a proverbial microscope and weigh them fairly as a need or a want.
“We certainly don’t want to leave anyone out in the cold”, he said.