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Questionable summer conditions on city buses draws concerns

(March 29, 2013) Like the ghost of sickness past, the resort’s recurring concern about the questionable summertime conditions on its buses resurfaced in City Hall last week, re-igniting last summer’s spat over bus safety amid growing concern’s over the resort’s packed schedule this summer.

Further, despite an ongoing element of popular fear over violent behavior on public transportation, it was also reaffirmed this week that the major toll on resort buses and bus drivers is not intentional physical destruction, but violations of a more fluid nature.

“Last year was not a bad year [for property loss],” said Transportation Superintendent George Thornes. “Did we have some problems, yes … but we’ve have much worse years than that.”

However, Thornes noted, “there were more clean-ups interior-wise last year than we’ve had in the past nine years.”

When there seemed to be some confusion as to what interior clean-ups entailed, Thornes clarified the issue to be “bodily fluids.”

In a somewhat perverse sign of its own success, the popularity of the bus system’s ability to safely – and cheaply – ferry tired and intoxicated riders around the island appears to be indicated largely by the increasing volumes of urine and vomit mopped up off its floors.

The city has always struggled with the inherently rowdy nature of the buses, which were implemented with the express purpose of keeping intoxicated tourists off the streets and from behind the wheel. But its use by teenage visitors – particularly those participating in the Play it Safe program – has often been at the center of the debate.

Play it Safe, currently approaching its 24th season, offers free events designed to keep the high school-age revelers who flock to the resort in June away from illicit activities. It also provides them with wristbands good for free bus fare

Last year, after former Councilman Joe Hall suggested that bus safety was becoming a concern, other city officials suggested that the mass dissemination of Play it Safe wristbands was the culprit, sparking a row over the popular program, of which Hall is a major supporter.

Last week, Councilman Dennis Dare again broached the issue, when the application for Play it Safe’s 2013 activities came up for approval.

“I do have one concern and that has to do with the behavior on the buses,” Dare said. “The loss of buses from service when windows are broken or rails are removed … and more so, the drivers that come on board in the spring and quit soon after [is a problem].”

But Councilman Brent Ashley was quick to note that, during last year’s same debate, he, Hall and City Manager David Recor had ridden the bus during the wee hours of the morning and observed that Play it Safe participants were not the problem during the peak times of risk for destructive behavior and for, more critically, circumstances that require a mop-up crew.

“I think the bottom line was that there wasn’t that much damage or vandalism in June,” Ashley said.

“There weren’t a lot of wristbands that night we rode the bus,” Recor said. “The behavior at the time was not related to participation in the Play it Safe event.”

The problem, it seems, does not lie with any specific demographic group and instead with the sheer volume of riders, typically spurred on by the increasing concentration of events in June.

After the weekend of the 2012 OC Air Show, which also coincided with a massive car show and multiple sports tournaments, Thornes reported that bus ridership was up by 14,256 riders, a 16.2 percent increase over the 2011 air show. Furthermore, the peak of that weekend saw 87 bus deployments over a 24-hour period, the biggest in the town’s history.

Each deployment represents one bus and driver for an 8-hour shift, and since the city owns fewer than 87 buses, some vehicles had to be cleaned and prepped rapidly for multiple shifts in one day. Conversely, over a winter weekend, the city might have only five deployments in 24 hours.

With June 2013 scheduled to be the most event-heavy in the resort’s history – “slammed,” according to Recor – the problem will likely only increase, as the resort  tries to cover more ground with a smaller workforce due to the hour restrictions imposed by the federal Affordable Care Act.

“I would just ask that they [Play it Safe’s organizers] be very diligent in dispensing the wristbands, to make sure it’s to participants,” Dare said. “The young adults that come and participate in the events aren’t the problem, they’re the responsible ones.”

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