Empty seats put brakes on transit service

Published 11:45 am Thursday, March 1, 2007

By Staff
Without an infusion of money, the bus stops Friday
By MIKE VOSS, Contributing Editor
The city’s bus service will be parked Friday afternoon unless a source of money can be found to keep it running.
City officials and others involved with the service are looking for that money.
Paltry ridership is the reason given for the bus service’s demise.“From the beginning, we said this was going to be a trial activity based on demand,” said Chris Kiricoples, executive director of the Beaufort County Developmental Center. “The bottom line … is ridership has remained extremely low.”
The bus service, operated by Beaufort Area Transit System, began its 90-day trial Nov. 20. Although those 90 days were up last week, a decision was made to continue the service through this week.
Kiricoples, in an interview Wednesday, said he met with Washington Mayor Judy Meier Jennette, City Manager James C. Smith and Dianna Griffin, the BATS transportation manager, to discuss the future of the bus service. Based on the lack of ridership and funding, they decided to park the bus service’s lone 24-passenger bus after it makes its last run Friday.
Kiricoples said a three-month trial may not have been sufficient to expose the bus service to the public and attract riders. Many communities that have established bus services or are trying to set up such services usually take six to nine months to give their bus services trial runs.
Despite advertising the service, media attention paid to the service and numerous informational meetings held for likely passengers, the bus service didn’t generate enough riders — who paid a dollar each for a one-way trip — to keep it operating, Kiricoples said. The Washington Housing Authority conducted many of those meetings for its clients and distributed fliers to those clients.
Hodges said if the bus service secures funding to keep operating, the authority “will continue to support it and push it.”
As seats as the bus remained mostly empty, it became apparent the bus service was not catching on, Kiricoples said,
Kiricoples said then the service’s goal was to become self-sustaining. To do that, he said, 30 to 32 passengers would have to ride the bus during each circuit of the route. During the 90-day trial, the service never had more than 12 riders in any week, according to Kiricoples.
The Washington City Council appropriated up to $2,750 to help fund the system during the trial period. Beaufort County Hospital, Beaufort County Community College Foundation, Washington Housing Authority, Wal-Mart and the Mid-East Commission each provided $1,000 to operate the system. The Agape Health Clinic provided $250.
There’s a slight chance the bus won’t be parked or won’t stay parked.
The bus service is asking the N.C. Department of Transportation and private sources to provide at least enough money to “finish out this fiscal year at the current level of operation,” Kiricoples said. The bus service would need $7,500 to operate until the end of the fiscal year, which ends June 30. BATS is trying to secure funding through DOT’s public-transportation division, Kiricoples said.
The mayor isn’t ready to give up on the bus service.
If the DOT money becomes available, it takes the pressure off the bus service for the next four months.
Other sources, including those that provided money during the trial period, may be able provide funding to keep the bus service going after the end of the fiscal year, Jennette said. Getting that money from them to keep the bus service going for the remainder of this fiscal year may be difficult because many of those sources are nearing the end of their fiscal years and don’t have the money to help keep the bus rolling until June 30, Jennette said. That situation changes on July 1 when those sources begin a new fiscal year with money in their pockets, she said.
The bus service also is seeking support from those sources that have already provided money to run the bus.
If the money is found to keep the service running until June 30, BCDC, BATS and city officials will explore ways to make the bus service more successful. Kiricoples is convinced the bus service would be used, eventually. The four months left in this fiscal year would provide time to promote the bus service and educate potential riders about what it offers, Kiricoples said.
Kiricoples acknowledges that having just one bus may limit what the bus service can do.
The bus service had to work with resources available to it, and those resources included just the one bus, Kiricoples said.