OCEAN CITY – Starting next November, the city’s bus service will be scaled back through the off-season months, eliminating the third shift that runs through the night during the week and returning to operating 24 hours a day on the weekends.
During budget wrap-up last Friday, city staff and the Mayor and City Council continued discussions over methods to increase revenue and cut costs to fill a budget shortfall in the FY14 budget.
A couple weeks ago, Public Works Director Hal Adkins presented two “extreme” options in decreasing the transit service. Both options left the service the same in the summer months, May-September, but if the bus service were to be completely eliminated in the off-season, October-April, it would reduce the subsidy by $1.67 million. The other option was to limit the bus service in the off-season to run only Friday-Sunday, which would result in a $1.42 million reduction.
Adkins returned to the Mayor and City Council last Friday with specifics, including the breakdown of costs, ridership data and transit schedules of surrounding areas.
Assistant Transportation Superintendent Brian Connor reviewed the sampling of transit systems in the surrounding areas that was a mix of rural and urban operators. Ocean City is currently classified as a Section 5311 rural provider. However Councilman Dennis Dare has expressed in the past it is time for the state to acknowledge the city as an urban operator and act accordingly.
“When you get into the urban areas, you will find that the transit agencies service many different perspectives of the community, whether it is transit to and from school … or commuters going to the business district, commuters going to the military base, and they structure their transit systems accordingly,” Connor explained. “So, some systems may be running as early as 7 a.m. until 11 a.m. and then pick that route back up later in the day from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., so it’s all custom tailored to the needs of their community.”
Dare pointed out the General Fund contributed $1.9 million to the Transportation Fund in the current fiscal year’s budget and spread among Ocean City’s almost 30,000 taxpaying accounts that comes to each taxpayer paying $60 a year to subsidize the buses.
“With our partners at the state and federal government that have stayed stagnant and treated us like a rural service instead of a urban, and then when we want to try to reduce our costs they tell us we have to provide a urban service … I don’t think we can afford to do that until they can participate a little bit more,” he said.
Dare furthered in the offseason ridership data reflects 100-plus riders of the bus between shift one and two, which is from the early hours in the morning to late night.
“However, that third shift only has 30 to 40 people on week nights and I think that is a luxury that we can’t afford anymore,” he said.
Dare made a motion from November to April to have two shifts run from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. and on the weekends have the second shift run until midnight on the weekends, except to have the hours extended on holidays and for special events.
“We could pay to put them all [bus riders] in cabs and it would be a lot cheaper,” Councilman Joe Mitrecic said, agreeing the third shift had become practically empty in the off-season. He pointed out the busiest third shift in recent history was in December of 2011 with 5,417 riders, which comes out to cost the town about $580 an hour to move 20 people.
“This is one that has been talked about for a long period of time,” Mayor Rick Meehan said of decreasing the transit systems hours in the slow season. “It is a luxury that we can no longer afford and when we look at other areas it is a service that goes above and beyond. I can see where we would want to go to two shifts Sunday through Thursday but I would think we would want to continue with the full shifts Friday and Saturday.”
The third bus shift runs from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., and the mayor pointed out the weekends in Ocean City are still busy in the off-season with conventions and events.
“It will give us an opportunity to review exactly the impact, how it works, and give us a direction into the future,” Meehan said.
Councilman Brent Ashley voiced his concern over impacting the daily late-night bus riders in Ocean City.
“Everybody has to make adjustments … sometimes you have to take a look at what really works to preserve the system as a whole,” the mayor responded.
Dare withdrew his motion once it became apparent his idea of the bus stopping at midnight on the weekends was not in accordance with the majority of the council. Mitrecic followed up with a motion to do away with the third shift starting in November through April, and change the hours to reflect 6 a.m. to midnight Sunday through Thursday and run 24-hour shifts Friday and Saturday, and on holiday weekends, including New Year’s Eve.
The council voted 4-2 to approve with Dare and Ashley in opposition and Councilwoman Margaret Pillas absent.