Frederick County commissioner pushes for better bus service -- Gazette.Net



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Frederick County Commissioner Billy Shreve said he believes that ridership on TransIT buses is too low because the routes are complicated and difficult to understand.

As a result, Shreve (R) said in an interview Monday that he will push to get more people to ride the county’s TransIT buses.

His comments come despite an 8.84 percent increase in TransIT ridership in fiscal 2012, from 835,880 riders to 909,804, according to county figures.

But Shreve said he was basing his assessment on personal observations — not ridership data.

“I want to maximize the use of TransIT and get more people to ride the bus,” he said. “You never see a full TransIT bus. They are usually less than 30 percent full, and you see less than five people on a bus. It’s easy to count when it goes by at 30 mph. I want to figure out why [people] are not riding the bus.”

Shreve said when commissioners begin discussions next year on the fiscal 2014 budget, he plans to bring up his concerns with the TransIT system.

“I have a bus stop right outside my house, and I have to look and see where it’s going. It’s not an easy system for the average person to understand,” he said.

Shreve also wants to look at outsourcing the operation of TransIT to a private company as a way to improve the service.

“I want it to be run by whoever can maximize ridership,” he said.

Outsourcing could mean layoffs for county TransIT workers if a private company takes over the service. Since the commissioners took office in 2010 they have outsourced several county services and laid off hundreds of employees.

Nancy Norris, acting director of TransIT Services, said they will consider any of Shreve’s suggestions.

“We’ll look into whatever he wants to look at,” Norris said.

Currently, the department has a fleet of 53 vehicles consisting of large and small buses, a minivan, hybrid sedans and utility vehicles, Norris said. They currently operate nine different connector routes around the county. Most of the larger buses have room for 29 riders.

Norris said the buses can be crowded with passengers. The bus driver goes through the route picking up one passenger here, two passengers there, until the bus is filled, she said.

Most of the passengers use the buses to get to Frederick Community College, Francis Scott Key Mall and the neighborhoods surrounding Frederick Towne Mall, she said.

Outsourcing TransIT to a private company could be a problem because 50 percent of the department’s operating money comes from the federal government, Norris said. The state and the county each pay 25 percent.

The federal government helps to subsidize the service because the county government, not a private company, operates TransIT.

The federal government also pays 80 percent of the capital costs, while the state and the county each pay 10 percent, she said.

“[The federal government] does provide generous funding,” Norris said.

TransIT’s overall budget for fiscal 2012 was $5.4 million, according to its most recent annual report. Of that amount, $1.4 million came from the county, $1 million form the state, $2 million from the federal government and the remainder comes from fares, advertising and contracts.

“If the county wanted to privatize TransIT and turn the vehicles over, they would have to repay the federal government their 80 percent of the value of the vehicle,” Norris said. “Other capital assets would have to [repaid] as well.”

In response, Shreve said his only motive is to maximize the use of TransIT and get more commuters on the buses.

It is not the first time Shreve has targeted TransIT.

Last month, he proposed that high school students use TransIT instead of school buses as a way to cut the rising cost of school-bus service.

In fiscal 2012, Frederick County Public Schools spent $3.2 million in gasoline for its buses, Leslie Pellegrino, executive director of fiscal services with the school system, said in an interview last month. That number is up from $2.9 million in fiscal 2011.

Shreve said that county taxpayers are paying for both TransIT and school buses. If a TransIT route runs past a high school, there may be a way to save money by having students take that bus.

Shreve said he sees it as a way to get children more comfortable with taking public transportation, which would make them more likely to continue taking TransIT into adulthood.

“I am in favor of giving kids free ridership because they will continue to use it when they graduate,” he said. “It’s easier for kids to learn the routes.”

TransIT already sells a “student ticket” for those attending two high schools — Governor Thomas Johnson and Frederick — on its route.

The Frederick County Board of Education has made no decision on Shreve’s proposal.

Shreve — who is the commissioner liaison to the school board — has said he will continue to look at the county’s bus system.

“We will talk about it and continue to talk about it,” he said.

sgreenfield@gazette.net