Despite jump in ridership, commissioners consider cuts to bus service -- Gazette.Net







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More people are taking the bus because of rising gas prices, but Frederick County manager Dave Dunn has asked the county’s bus service to cut its budget by 30 percent.

The potential reduction in the contribution to TransIT bus and shuttle services is part of the county commissioners’ commitment to shrinking the size of government, according to Dunn,

Dunn said he has asked all departments to look for ways to reduce their budgets by 30 percent, as a starting point.

“There are some departments that are low-hanging fruit that we should at least talk about,” Dunn said. “Since I have been [with the county], I have heard the message repeated and repeated that we need smaller government.”

However, with the pain at the pumps, ridership has climbed 8 percent in the past year, at the same time national bus ridership has increased by 2 percent, TransIT Director Sherry Burford said. In fiscal 2012, bus and shuttle trips totaled 835,830. This year, Burford projects the total will jump to 905,536 trips. According to a 2010 survey of regular bus riders, 75 percent of those who take the bus are headed to work or to school.

For every $1 the county contributes to TransIT, federal and state governments give $3; for every new bus purchased, the county receives $10 in federal and state money for every county dollar spent. The projected budget for 2013 is $8.7 million, with $6.5 million from grants, making the county’s contribution $2.2 million. Cutting into the county’s contribution will reduce the amount of grant money the county receives. For every $100 cut, the county could lose $300, Burford said.

Because of the increased need for bus service, Burford is recommending ways to make more money, instead of making more cuts. TransIT already has eliminated two driver positions — out of 44 full-time and 25 part-time total — and 1.5 administrative positions through attrition, she said. TransIT has hired a vendor to increase its advertising revenue in hopes of doubling the current annual ad revenue of $60,000.

Commissioner Paul Smith (R), liaison to TransIT, said slashing the bus budget will be difficult because so many lower-income people depend on the bus to get to work.

“As long as the state keeps subsidizing it at a high rate, it [bus service] will help us bring the job growth we want,” he said. “For new companies to locate here, it is important that we maintain that.”

He would, however, consider a small increase in bus fares, which have not been raised in 10 years. A bus trip costs $1.10.

A more difficult decision for Smith, he said, will be what to do about the high cost of transporting seniors and those with disabilities to their doctors’ and dialysis appointments. The county’s Transit-Plus system costs $560,000 annually to drive those who qualify. Burford projects that those specialized trips will total more than 47,000 this fiscal year. State grant funds to assist in the Transit-Plus program have stayed flat at $159,159 for eight years.

Many of the trips are outside of the normal operating hours of 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and customers must request the service two days in advance.

“I don’t know how to resolve this…there’s no easy answer,” Smith said. “We have the responsibility to look into everything.”

Commissioner David P. Gray (R) is concerned the county is rushing to judgment without public input.

“The first we heard of this was in closed session,” he said. “To come on with this type of attitude toward this thing is irresponsible and it’s become the pattern here.”

But Dunn said the county is in the exploratory stages in cutting specialized trips, and “at the end of the day, these people will get to their appointments.”