OCEAN CITY – Jeopardizing the 30-minute bus schedule that residents have come to rely on in Ocean City was not worth the “road test” for possible cost savings, the City Council decided Tuesday.
The council voted 4-3, with Joe Hall, Margaret Pillas and President Joe Mitrecic in opposition, to leave the bus system as it is, rather than alter the service as part of the city’s ongoing cost cutting measures.
“I know it’s one of these things that costs us a bit of money, but the folks that work that hour of the night are real important to us,” said Councilman Jim Hall, “and they are working people that need that bus, as it’s their lifeline. I want to leave the bus system alone, and we can revisit this if we get in a pinch.”
After a public hearing in early January saw almost a dozen Ocean City residents voice their displeasure with ideas to trim the bus service from January to March from three buses to two buses on the late-night shift, the council decided to leave the issue alone, keeping the current bus schedule during the 10 p.m.-6 a.m. shift, and move on to the next cost cutting measure, despite the significant savings a change would have accrued.
Yet, the passed opportunity for cost savings, which could have topped $100,000 depending on which option was implemented, according to Public Works Director Hal Adkins, left a bitter taste in the mouth of one of the council’s most outspoken proponents of cost cutting.
“I’d like to see the town go to two buses, and if it doesn’t meet the need of the passengers, we can always go back up to three,” said Joe Hall. “If we don’t try this, we will never know if it would work, and to not take advantage of the opportunity to try it is a mistake. We are asking everyone to be as responsible as possible and conservative with every dollar expended. This is a viable option to at least explore and give it a road test.”
Some of the options that were proposed included trimming the current schedule of three buses per shift to two buses or even to trim the third shift bus further to either one bus in the “graveyard” hours Sunday-Thursday or to eliminate that shift altogether during the week.
Adkins presented several options to the council about ways to possibly make the service reduction a feasible reality, including taking into consideration the needs of the drivers to still have their allotted breaks.
“The ridership around the 3 a.m. hour significantly drops off, and one of the options we are proposing would be to take the entire bus system off service from 3-3:30 a.m. so the two drivers could take their break at that time. Worst-case scenario, if someone missed a bus, they would have to wait approximately an hour before getting the next bus in that hour, but the rest of the evening would still operate very close to a 30-minute headway,” said Adkins.
The other option that Adkins proposed that seemed to strike a chord with some members of the council was the idea of “hotseating” the bus, or in simpler terms, having an employee board the bus at 3 a.m. and continue to operate the bus route while the original driver takes a break, and then the “hotseat” driver would switch to the other bus after the half-hour break and take over for the other on duty bus driver.
Yet, Adkins conceded that any alterations to a two-bus schedule might jeopardize the 30-minute headway.
“I’m not in a position to promise a 30- minute headway with a two bus service at all times. If I were to say that, I would be lying,” said Adkins, “Though we have done studies, and the headway stays reasonably close, the reality is that there are things that happen that delay the progress of the bus up and down the highway.”
Councilman Lloyd Martin seemed to see potential in the idea of “hotseating” the bus, but it didn’t sway him from his stance of keeping the current headway.
“I want to see us keep the 30 minute headway, but I do like the idea of ‘hotseating’ the bus especially if you have someone that is willing to do it at that hour, but I’m still going to support Jim Hall’s motion to leave the bus as it is,” Martin said.
Adkins said that the cost for running the third shift or graveyard bus is $214 per bus, per shift, almost $4,500 dollars for three buses per week, or $94,374 from November-March.
Councilman Doug Cymek noted that choosing the “hotseat” option for bus alteration would save $750 per week for the town, and possibly $6,000 for the eight weeks that remain in the “winter schedule”, but stayed with Hall’s motion to leave the bus schedule as is.
Mitrecic said that the council needed to be willing to make tough decisions in times like these.
“I would like to see it tried,” said Mitrecic, “I would like to see where it goes and if we could make those 30-minute headways. On a Wednesday in January at 4 a.m., you can make that headway. It’s easy to sit up here and say we want to cut money out of the budget but sometimes you have to make tough decisions to do that, and I think this is one of those that you have to be willing to try to cut money out of the budget.”
In the end, the public’s outcry and Jim Hall’s stance took precedence to proposed fiscal responsibility, and as a result, the public shouldn’t have to wait any longer than 30-minutes for a bus in the dead of winter.
“I’m concerned that this town does operate in the middle of the night, and there are people that rely on this service for their lifeblood,” said Jim Hall, “and I think we should mess with something else before we go messing with this.”