Janesville52.1°

City bus ridership falls

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Stacy Vogel
August 12, 2009
— Conventional wisdom says that when the economy goes down, bus ridership goes up.

But nothing has been conventional about Janesville's economy this year.


So the Janesville transit director isn't necessarily surprised that transit ridership is down 8.9 percent in the first half of 2009 from the same period in 2008.


Several factors seem to be driving ridership down, Director Dave Mumma said.


Gas prices have fallen from last summer, reducing an incentive to take the bus instead of the car.


More than 60 percent of Janesville bus riders have household incomes of $20,000 or less, Mumma said. Those people have been hit hardest by the recession.


"Some of the jobs that they had, the marginal jobs they had, are being taken either by people who had better paying jobs and were laid off or those jobs don't exist anymore," Mumma said.


While the unemployed might still take the bus for errands, they no longer have to get to work every day, he said.


The system has seen a 17.1 percent decrease in "tripper" routes, including routes that take students to school, according to a memo from Mumma. That might be because more parents are home to take their children to school instead of sending them on the bus, he said.


Nighttime service is down 15.7 percent.


The ridership drop has grown even steeper in the second quarter of the year, with ridership down 14.8 percent from April to June 2009 compared to the same period in 2008. It's the biggest quarterly drop since 1997, when fare increases and the relocation of Marshall Middle School led to a 20.6 percent drop.


Advertising revenue also is down 46.4 percent.


By June 30, the city had taken in only 42.2 percent of its expected revenue for the year. Meanwhile, expenses per revenue passenger have risen from $6.63 a trip in 2008 to $7.26 this year.


The news isn't all bad.


Operating expenses are down 0.13 percent because of lower fuel prices and a mild winter. Paratransit ridership has jumped 17.4 percent following the cancellation of several private transit programs, most notably Mercy in Motion, Mumma wrote.


But unless ridership starts picking up again—and indications are that it won't—the city will have to take a hard look at the transit program in its 2010 budget, Mumma said.


"If you look at a service that is not performing well, you do have to swallow hard and say, 'OK, is this something we can continue to provide if we are not utilizing it to the extent that they might?'"


But cuts could hurt the transit system's core customers who depend on it for transportation, Mumma said.


"There are people who are working, for example, at night now because the (nighttime) bus service exists," he said. "If that service goes away, the possibility exists they might not be able to hold that job in the evening anymore."


The city council also is scheduled to consider a possible fare hike after delaying a 25-cent increase scheduled to take effect July 1. But that, too, could hurt low-income riders, Mumma said.


"It's difficult, difficult decisions that have to be made," he said.


Token programs down, too

Two transit programs—one established, one new—also are languishing during Janesville's economic recession.


The Janesville City Council established a token program for local charities this spring. It allows community organizations to buy bus tokens for 60 cents each after buying 500 tokens at the regular rate. Tokens normally cost $10 for 10. The organizations can then pass the tokens on to their clients.


But only one organization, House of Mercy, has taken advantage of the program, said Dave Mumma, transit director.


"I'm a bit surprised" that more groups aren't participating, he said.


The youth token program, on the other hand, has been losing participants for years. The program allows agencies serving youth to buy bus tokens for 60 cents each through Partners in Prevention. Children then can use the tokens to get home from after-school programs.


The program peaked in 2005, when 2,206 tokens were used. Through the first half of 2009, just 219 tokens were collected, compared to 879 in the first half of 2008.


"We continue to monitor the results, but if no improvement is seen, this program will have to be re-evaluated," Mumma wrote in a memo to the city.



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