Solving the bus system dilemma

11/21/2014

If all of local government were meant to be self-supporting, the mayor and City Council would be working for nothing.

We aren’t suggesting that, since our view is local elected officials probably aren’t paid enough based on the hours they work. But the push by these same officials to have various government operations break even or simply lose less doesn’t always make sense.

The municipal bus system is the best example of a service that has had to deal with conflicting missions.

Many years ago, when the service received major upgrades and its fares were dropped radically – Mayor Rick Meehan, then a councilman, was the leading proponent of that – the bus system’s mandate was to reduce traffic congestion.

The solution – and the right one at that – was to lower the fare to one dollar. Everyone recognized that the transportation system would lose money, but that wasn’t the point.

In the years following, City Hall focused on encouraging would-be drivers to take the bus and to leave their personal vehicles at their condos, hotels and the park-and-ride lot in West Ocean City.

All that changed, however, when the real estate market and, subsequently, tax revenues plummeted, leaving what had been a free-spending local government having to scramble for money.

As that priority continued into this current budget year, the bus system’s objective was redirected to address that concern by using higher fares to fill a budgetary gap.

That did happen to some degree, but now the pressure is on the system to do better financially by elevating its ridership numbers, even though the increased cost of a bus ride probably contributed to the drop in passenger totals.

Compounding the transportation division’s dilemma is that there aren’t enough bus drivers – or people who want to be bus drivers at $14 an hour – to put the maximum number of buses on the road.

In other words, the bus operation has to fix the problem of less supply and less demand while protecting the revenue it generates by not spending too much money to get it done.

If that sounds unreasonable, it’s only because it is. What city government should do before pursuing any course is determine the transit system’s primary purpose: is it a people-hauler first and a moneymaker second, or the other way around?

If it’s to be a moneymaker, one course of action would be to scale back its operation to what the customer base will support, even while raising drivers’ hourly rate. And take the pressure off building ridership.

If it’s to be a people-hauler, the city will still have to raise the drivers’ pay and add in a shift differential for the brave souls who catch the post-midnight run, leave the rates were they are and be happy that the loss isn’t ruinous.

The bus system conundrum isn’t a conundrum at all. It’s a matter of setting priorities.

 

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