OCEAN CITY — It was bad news, better news this week after a review of the year-to-date municipal bus ridership revealed the numbers were down significantly through the summer, but the revenue losses were minimized by adjusting the deployments.
Heading into the summer season, it was clear with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic municipal bus ridership was going to be down significantly for a variety of reasons. State COVID-19 directives through much of the summer called for severe limitations on public transit systems with appropriate spacing, social distancing and the wearing of masks required.
In addition, the late-night demand on the municipal bus system was curtailed because most restaurants and bars were operating with limited capacity and reduced hours. Resort transportation officials knew the town’s public transit was going to take a hit going into what has clearly not been a typical summer and adjusted accordingly.
During Tuesday’s Transportation Committee meeting, the year-to-date numbers were presented through the first week of the summer, revealing ridership was down about 81%. In terms of raw numbers, in August, for example, the total municipal bus ridership in 2019 was a little over 500,000, while just over 88,000 rode the town’s bus system in August 2020.
“It was quite obvious our visitors and residents chose not to ride mass transit this summer,” said Public Works Director Hal Adkins. “That became apparent early and we kind of knew that going in.”
Despite the significant decline in bus ridership, the revenue losses, by comparison were relatively tame. Obviously, fewer buses were deployed, fewer drivers were needed and fuel costs were down. There were some fixed costs to absorb, but the level of expenditures nearly met the level of demand.
“Through August, we’re down about $120,000 in net revenue,” said Budget Manager Jennie Knapp. “All in all, that’s probably better than we expected.”
The municipal bus service will continue on its abbreviated summer schedule essentially through the end of September. The schedule includes 14 buses running every 20 minutes from 6 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. each day during the week. On the weekend, 22 buses are being deployed with the service ending around midnight. In terms of drivers, the system has been operating all summer with around 55, which is down from about 130 in a typical summer.
It should be noted because of COVID-19, the month of June saw reduced municipal bus ridership because the typical number of recent graduates was down significantly. In addition, there were no J-1 visa foreign student workers, many of whom use public transportation, in Ocean City this summer. On top of that, most of the town’s major special events during the summer were cancelled, or at least scaled back significantly.
While the drastic reduction in bus ridership numbers was tempered somewhat by a reduction in expenses, representing a net revenue loss of around $120,000, the news was not as good with the Boardwalk tram. Throughout the summer, resort officials wrestled with if and when to resume the Boardwalk tram before finally deciding to pull the plug on the operation for the 2020 season. City Manager Doug Miller explained losing the Boardwalk tram service resulted in a deficit of around $700,000.
“That’s our big hit this year,” he said. “It’s really unfortunate. With the debt service on the trams and the other fixed costs, there are some things we just can’t do anything about.”