OCEAN CITY – The transportation department stood strong this week as all of its department heads attended this week’s Mayor and City Council meeting to answer concerns over bus ridership issues.
Councilman Joe Hall has expressed concern over the bus ridership and the level of customer service being provided. He said starting on Cruisin’ weekend he began observing a large wait line for the buses and observed it again over Memorial Day weekend.
As his concern grew, he drove to the 65th Street bus lot and observed a fleet of buses sitting there.
“This past Friday I chose to ride the bus myself to test it out and to see what kind of experience it is,” Hall said.
After having about four full buses passed him, Hall boarded a bus on 60th Street driving southbound on Coastal Highway and reached the transit station downtown 55 minutes later. He then boarded a bus driving northbound from 10th Street back to 60th Street and that trip took 65 minutes. Although he felt the bus ride was lengthy, he commented that both of the bus drivers were very pleasant.
“They are doing a good job being calm and being able to be aware of everything they need to be aware of and also handle a load of people,” Hall said. “They are doing a good job and need to be proud of the job their doing.”
Joe Hall asserted that the city has raised the bus fare 50 percent from last year and there is a certain expectation of customer service to go along with that.
“I believe if we don’t meet the customers’ expectations it won’t be the fare increase that costs us ridership it will be the lack of expectable experience of riding the bus,” Hall said.
Public Works Director Hal Adkins explained that it may not be an acceptable level of customer service but the transportation department is “doing the best they can” and is working on its issues at this time. He added that the wait for the bus is no different than waiting at a restaurant on a summer Friday or Saturday night.
“So do I personally find waiting at the bus stop on a Friday evening during the peak of summer 15 or 20 minutes inexcusable? No,” Adkins said. “The problem is just like the Outback Steakhouse, you can’t build it big enough, you can’t staff it enough to meet the people, you can’t do it and you can’t afford to do it.”
Adkins also explained the transportation department constantly works with the deployment of the bus schedule to meet the shifting changes in the demand of ridership. He said user habits constantly change depending on the riders of the bus, whether it’s a family or single adults, as well as weather habits.
“The fixed deployment doesn’t work, we have to change on the move,” he said. “We are recognizing we have too many deployments in the morning hours and the department has been making adjustments lately to shift it down to the afternoon and evening.”
Adkins added that it also difficult to fill bus shifts because driving a bus in Ocean City isn’t a fit for everybody. He said currently the department does not have full staffing and there are 32 vacant eight-hour shifts.
“As of today, we are not fully staffed … you can’t walk in the door and get in the seat of that bus,” he said.
Adkins explained that if a driver does not have a CDL license it would take an additional 30 days to train and acquire a passenger license. To walk in the door with no training, it takes a few months to receive the appropriate license.
“This group starts preparing in February and March to prepare for the summer,” he said.
Councilwoman Margaret Pillas also expressed a couple concerns over the future of this summer’s demands and whether the department can handle it.
“With the Dew Tour coming, we don’t have any history for that week … and I’m really hoping that you all are going to have enough buses on that highway to be able to handle what’s going on in this town,” she said.
She added that the reason behind such discussions is to allow the public to become aware of such issues.
“There are no problems in us giving you the money you need to have to do your job, but it has to be communicated so we can get it to the public and so they can know how difficult this is,” she said. “We’re letting the public know that in the future we’re going to have some problems, and we need to come up with some money to get people trained.”
In response, Adkins pointed out that the council has already allocated and additional $119,000 in operating funds in this year’s budget starting July 1.
“Which is going to allow us to do 672 additional deployments in FY12 which is above and beyond what we’re doing now,” he said.
Adkins added that although additional funds were provided, money doesn’t always fix the problem.
“If you hand me a bazillion dollars, it doesn’t mean I have all the drivers and all the vehicles,” he said. “It’s an octopus with a lot of tentacles, you make it work.”
In conclusion, Adkins said the fleet of buses Hall observed in the transportation yard was 14 new buses that are being prepared for the summer at this time. He added that those buses are also available for advertising opportunities to the local business community.
“I don’t want anybody in this room to think we will be in a position to deploy a sufficient number of buses every time you’re waiting at the bus stop during a peak hour, on a peak night, on a beautiful hot sunny evening in June, July, and August and that we will be able to pick you up every 10 minutes,” Adkins said. “It’s utopia and it just can’t be done.”