OCEAN CITY — Bus ridership numbers throughout the season and through the early fall thus far continue to be flat or even declining slightly, setting the table for what could be a rebound year.
It’s no secret bus ridership numbers in Ocean City are largely reliant on decent weather and 2018 has been a decidedly wet year. As a result, the ridership numbers year-to-date are down about four percent and with the season over and the weeks winding down, it appears likely there is little time to make up lost ground.
During a Transportation Committee meeting last Tuesday, Transportation Director Mark Rickards explained the summer-long trend had continued thus far through October and early November.
“We finished October basically flat,” he said. “We had some pretty good weekends, but we had a Nor’easter on the last weekend that kind of canceled out any gains we had made.”
Bus ridership numbers are analyzed from year to year and even month to month to determine if there are tweaks needed to deployments, staffing or other factors. In some cases, such as the 2018 season, for example, everything can go just right with deployments, the appropriate number of buses on the streets at peak times and a solid employment base to man those buses, but the figures are left to the whims of Mother Nature. Ever the optimist, Mayor Rick Meehan said on Tuesday the slightly lower figures for 2018 thus far provide opportunities for significant gains next year if the weather cooperates.
“We had a challenging year with all of the bad weather, so we should be able to reverse that,” he said. “Sometimes, you have a great year and its hard to duplicate that the following year, but we might have the reverse situation next year. We might be able to really turn those numbers around if the weather is decent.”
Rickards agreed the potential is there for a great rebound year for the municipal bus system next year.
“We know the weather is the driving force for bus ridership,” he said. “Obviously, it’s nothing we can control so we have to hope for the best and hope it goes back in the right direction next year.”
Driver recruitment is also a key to a successful municipal bus system and Rickard said on Tuesday those efforts have begun in earnest for next year. He said there were 73 drivers and supervisors still on the payroll and another 43 who have expressed interest in returning.
“Those other 43 are currently out of the system, but they are coming back,” he said. “We have strong base of around 120 drivers already for next year.”
Rickards explained the recruitment efforts focus on local colleges and universities, fraternal organizations, churches, senior centers and the like. He said the town offers a referral bonus for a current employee who brings in a new driver, and reimbursement programs for new drivers who have to forward-fund the cost of testing, for example.
Rickards said the total number of bus driver hours needed in a given year is about 117,000, which breaks down to about 800 per driver. Many of the drivers are retired part-timers, so the number of hours each contributes to the overall goal varies greatly. He said there is considerable overtime, as drivers voluntarily work a sixth day in a week.
In addition, the Boardwalk tram operation requires about 35,000 hours from 23 conductors and 23 supervisors. Rickards said some tram drivers ultimately move over to the municipal bus system because the hourly rate for drivers is higher.
“We have to have 23 tram drivers and we can’t drop below that number,” he said. “That’s why we always like to have a cushion. There is always a turnover with tram drivers.”