Seasonal Bus Pass For Young Workers Pitched With Eye On Safety

OCEAN CITY — While most agree finding a way to get some of the thousands of foreign student-workers off bicycles and onto the municipal bus is a good idea, finding a way to make it fair for all young people living and working in the resort in the summer continues to be a challenge.

In September, the Transportation Committee began cursory talks about possibly making a seasonal pass available for the roughly 4,000 foreign student-workers in Ocean City each summer on J-1 work and travel visas in an effort to reduce the number traveling by bicycle in busy summer traffic, while enhancing ridership numbers for the municipal bus system. On Monday, the committee heard from Annemarie Conestabile of United Work and Travel, one of the major sponsors for J-1 students in the resort, who told them most of the roughly 4,000 student workers quickly acquire a bicycle when they arrive in the Ocean City area.

Because of the growing summer worker seasonal housing shortage, many of the J-1 students are now living in West Ocean City and beyond while the jobs available to them are largely on the island. As a result, many of the students are often seen riding bikes back and forth across the Route 50 Bridge and throughout the town at all hours.

“My biggest concern is safety,” she said. “As soon as I see a bicycle and no helmet, I go crazy. I can’t sleep at night. There were 37 bike accidents this summer involving our kids where I had to take students to AGH [Atlantic General Hospital].”

Public Works Director Hal Adkins said he has been exploring potential opportunities for improving safety, getting more student workers onto the municipal buses and increasing ridership numbers and ultimately revenue. He said while the discussions have been cursory thus far, he could envision a seasonal pass available to student workers at a discounted price. The passes would include a photo identification card the student-workers could present to drivers.

Of course, likely a small percentage of the student-workers would take advantage of the discounted rate, but at 4,000 student workers times the roughly 112 days of the typical seasonal worker summer times the standard $3 ride-all-day rate, there could be around $1.3 million in potential revenue on the table, along with, more importantly, the added safety measures.

If just 10 percent took advantage of the offer, there could be $400,000 in increased revenue while getting 400 kids off bikes and onto the bus, he said. The again, getting the foreign students to take advantage of a discounted seasonal bus pass could be tough sell because of the simple economics. A $3 pass times the 112 days of summer would equal $336 for a seasonal pass, while the student-workers can purchase a functional bicycle for around $89 from Wal-Mart, for example.

Conestabile said she cringes when she sees her charges riding bikes all over town.

“The housing shortage is a huge problem and many of them live in West Ocean City and work in town,” she said. “They’re riding their bicycles at 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. I hope you consider this proposal because it would reduce safety issues. They are somebody’s children.”

Mayor Rick Meehan pointed out increasing ridership and getting people out of their cars or off bicycles and into the municipal bus has always been challenging.

“I think it would be like trying to get the conventioneers out of their cars and onto the bus,” he said. “I think it would be a small percentage that would take advantage of it.”

Meehan also pointed out much of the discussion had been on the foreign summer workers, but there is an in-kind number of American students living and working in the resort each summer.

“There’s also a fairness issue,” he said. “We have to look at the foreign students versus the kids from Salisbury or Baltimore that are here for the summer. It needs a lot of discussion.”

Meehan said the $3 per day rate for the bus shouldn’t be a deal-breaker for the student workers, but they continue to resist in favor of bikes. Councilman Dennis Dare agreed, saying there was the fairness issue to consider.

“We want to get more students on the bus and off of the highway,” he said. “If we’re considering a student rate, it would have to be for all students. I don’t disagree $3 per day is a deal breaker for some, but if you offer it to foreign students, you’d have to offer it for all.”

Adkins said he would come back with more recommendations.

“I would like to consider it and take it a step further from just the J-1 kids,” he said. “Even if we only get 10 percent, that’s still $40,000 and there are the safety issues to consider. We just heard there were 37 accidents involving bicycles this summer. My journey on this has always been safety. I think we can come up with a logical plan to minimize the accidents.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.