OCEAN CITY — With the exception of a few key dates including the air show, municipal bus ridership continued to decline in a three-year comparison last month as resort officials continue to explore ways to reverse the trend.
The Transportation Committee this week continued to explore the updated three-year comparison of municipal bus ridership with June now in the books and the bad news is the numbers continue to decline from a peak in 2017. The good news is the municipal bus system is meeting its goals in terms of wait times and frequency of buses and despite the drop-off in the number of riders, the revenue generated during June was remarkably constant.
Transportation Director Mark Rickards told committee members June is a good barometer for the season because it typically is the best month of the summer. However, he said June ridership numbers appeared to dip slightly because the months main target audience- high school graduates- appear to be finding other modes of transportation.
“June has been our best month historically,” he said. “Where was the decrease? It was during the first half of the month. The high school graduates are not riding the bus as much as they once did.”
The statistics show ridership numbers from June at 575,000, down from the 611,000 last June and down even further from the 688,000 that rode in June 2017, which has been the high-water mark in recent years.
“Air Show Saturday was the best day of the month,” said Rickards. “We held serve during the air show and firemen’s week, but then we saw a drop-off at the end of the month. Overall, it was a good month operationally.”
Despite a decline in the overall ridership numbers for June, the month held its own in terms of revenue collected in a comparison with the same month last year.
“The June revenue is almost even despite ridership being down,” he said. “We’re losing ridership but not revenue. I think some people aren’t using the all-day pass as much.”
The statistics appear to bear that sentiment out at least from last year to this year, but the three-year comparison tells a slightly different story. For example, bus revenue for June 2019 came in at $566,065, while the same month in 2018 generated $566,900. However, June 2017 generated over $645,000 in bus revenue. Councilman Tony DeLuca said he wasn’t happy with the overall trend considering everything else appears to be up this summer.
“Ridership and revenue going down year after year is extremely disappointing,” he said. “Room tax is up, occupancy is up, food and sales tax are up. It seems obvious to me. When you have the people you need, we’re up. When you don’t have the people, we’re down.”
While the municipal bus system is meeting its goals in terms of wait times for customers, the department continues to struggle with meeting the desired deployments, largely because of a diminishing pool of drivers. From a peak of available drivers at 155 in 2017, the number declined to 139 last year and about 127 this year, although the exact number is somewhat of a moving target for a variety of reasons.
Operations Manager Steve Bartlett said despite rigorous recruiting efforts during the offseason, meeting the desired number of drivers remains challenging for a variety of reasons. Bartlett said even on days when the entire shift roster is filled out, there are often call-outs or other no-shows for different reasons. For example, of the 145 total hires for this year, 18 have left or are unavailable.
“I have five, six or seven people out with medical reasons,” he said. “Some others have problems with the MVA and their licenses etc. Those are critical people. The medical stuff is out of control. Maybe it’s just a fluke and will correct itself.”
Mayor Rick Meehan pointed out the goal for the total number of drivers hired is intentionally set high because there is always a certain level of attrition.
Public Works Director Hal Adkins said the shortfall in the desired number of drivers was not for a lack of recruiting and retaining effort.
“I think in some cases, the people we need to fill these shifts simply don’t exist,” Adkins said. “I don’t want anybody to leave here thinking we haven’t tried everything we can for recruitment.”
Councilman Dennis Dare believed the deployment levels were secondary to meeting wait times for customers.
“It all comes down to headways,” he said. “If you have a goal for 10-minute headways and you’re meeting those goals, it doesn’t matter how many drivers we have.”
Nonetheless, Bartlett said the department will continue to meet those headway objectives by hook or by crook.
“The staff I do have are great,” he said. “Some step up and don’t go home until the job is done. On Air Show Saturday, we had people working 10 to 12 hours.”