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Bus-ted: OC driver shortage hits ridership

(Nov. 21, 2014) If city buses seemed more crowded this summer, it’s because they were – significantly so.

End-of-season data returns from the city’s Transportation Division, requested by Ocean City Today, indicate that the city’s budgetary gamble last spring to raise the bus fare to a mandatory $3 had less of an adverse impact than city officials anticipated.

But not everything is going swimmingly.

A sharp decline in the number of buses running, due to an increasing difficulty in finding drivers, has put a huge squeeze on the bus sytem despite the expected slack in ridership.

“The drop in bus deployments that you saw this year was directly attributable to the lack of qualified applicants for drivers’ positions,” said city Public Works Director Hal Adkins. “We’re currently looking into how to address the issue.”

According to the city’s data, bus revenue for July 1 to Sept. 13, 2014 — the first 10 full weeks of the 2014-2015 fiscal year — was up 17.64 percent over the same period last year, totaling $1,485,572. Ridership, however, was down 6.78 percent to 1,215,153 trips.

More critically, bus availability continued to dip — 6.78 percent fewer riders rode 18.97 percent fewer buses. Last year, 4,602 deployments — each indicating one bus for one shift, typically eight hours — occurred in the first 10 weeks of the new fiscal year. This year, there were only 3,729.

Swings in ridership and revenue could be attributable to the fare change the city made this past spring – although weather and the placement of special events are also uncontrollable variables.

Effective May 23, the former $1-per-boarding option was eliminated, forcing all riders to buy a $3 all-day pass.

City Hall estimated that this would bring in an additional half-million dollars in bus fare income for FY14-15, or a revenue jump of 18.5 percent. Assuming the trend of the first 10 weeks continues, the city will only fall a few dollars short of this estimate.

The fare hike was also anticipated to decrease ridership by 25 percent – but this was an intentionally high estimate, Adkins noted, since it was impossible to take into account the effect of sunk cost. Many customers, data would indicate, have used the buses more since they’ve already laid out the whole $3.

The intent of the fare change was to reduce the amount that the city’s General Fund must subsidize the Transportation Division. The operating deficit for the division this year is expected to be under $1.3 million, down from $1.7 last year and $1.9 the year before.

However, the trend could be a moot point if the city cannot find enough drivers to make the service worthwhile.

Most seasonal bus drivers, Adkins said, are older persons who already live within commuting distance of the resort, and are current or retired school bus drivers. Although the job pays $14 per hour, many drivers are not in it for the money. For whatever reason, bus driving does not attract younger people who are willing to relocate for the summer to work for the city, as is the case with comparably paying positions in the Ocean City Police Department and Ocean City Beach Patrol.

Thus, the pool of employees is limited, Adkins said. The core season for city transit is July through early September, which produces nearly half of the division’s revenue. But summer employee turnover is comparatively high, and many have left by the end of June.

A number of options to attract more drivers and retain them longer are available, Adkins said, and city staffers are working on a number of ideas ahead of a presentation to the City Council, expected before the end of the year.

“We typically start recruitment for drivers in January, and are already preparing for next year’s budget, so we’re working diligently on some solutions,” Adkins said.

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