The bus less taken
When’s the last time you took a city bus? Do you avoid it because you think it’s unsafe...inconvenient...or just doesn’t go where you normally drive? And if gasoline prices got higher would you reconsider public transportation at least as a part-time option?
These are just a few of the questions METRO Regional Transit Authority officials have been asking its current riders and the community-at-large in an ongoing effort to match routes, schedules and services with the transportation needs of all kinds of local people.
Vital services and “choice riders”
Many of the bus lines in Summit County provide vital transportation to low-income riders who don’t have cars and to people whose disabilities prevent them from driving. Monday through Friday grocery buses take senior citizens who live in low-income high rise apartments to the grocery store. About 600 Akron students ride the METRO RTA to school each day. More than 15,000 people are registered to ride smaller SCAT, Summit Citizens’ Area Transit, buses to places like doctor’s offices.
Beyond riders who rely on METRO for vital transportation, there is also a loyal core of what RTA officials call “choice riders”—those whose cars would get them where they want to go, but who choose to take the bus instead. Right now, most of those choice riders live in Summit County and take the NorthCoast Express, NCX, to work in downtown Cleveland.
Alec Works, senior internal auditor for the Federal Reserve Bank in Cleveland, is one such rider. Having taken the NCX for several years, he says METRO buses are reliable and its drivers are courteous.
“The best part is not having to deal with traffic, especially in bad weather,” Works says. He spends his afternoon commute on the bus reading, listening to music or just relaxing—much less stressful than driving home after a long day, he adds.
METRO has been offering NorthCoast Express service for more than 14 years and there are currently eight buses. All are equipped with Wi-Fi and six buses are new. There are two daily NCX routes. One starts at the new Intermodal Transit Center on South Broadway and stops at the Park N Ride lot on Ghent Road before heading to Cleveland. The other initiates at Chapel Hill and stops in Twinsburg on its way to Public Square. Base rate is $5 each way; 10-ride passes are $40.
How is METRO RTA funded?
While Greater Cleveland RTA is expected to begin a $9 million reduction in service levels in April, METRO RTA (which has also faced federal and state budget cuts) is in a much better position. The biggest reason is that Summit County voters passed a sales tax levy increase in 2008. This permanent levy of .5 percent replaced the previous .25 that helped fund METRO RTA. This county sales tax funds the lion’s share of METRO’s annual budget: 69.58 percent in 2008.
The additional funds (expected to be about $32 million per year compared to $18 million previously) actually put our bus system in a growth pattern by the middle of last year according to Molly Becker, director of communications and marketing for METRO RTA.
Still, public transportation funding has been on a roller coaster ride in recent months.
Bad news: Because of the economic downturn, sales tax revenues for 2009 were 9 percent less than expected.
Good news: The federal government provided an additional $8.3 million in stimulus funds through the Federal Transit Administration. This freed up money for more projects, according to Becker.
Bad news: Investment income is down and riders (with or without cars) still need jobs in order to have a regular need for bus transportation. Increasing unemployment meant overall ridership dropped 11.5—from a little more than 5.6 million in 2008 to a little more than 5 million in 2009. NCX ridership dropped from 90,784 in 2008 to 75,726 in ’09.
This reflects a national trend, Becker says.
Overall, passenger fares cover less than 11 percent of the operating costs of METRO RTA. Base rate for rides is $1.25 (compared to the Greater Cleveland RTA base rate of $2.25.) Riders pay $2 each way on SCAT, which operates about 1,500 trips per day at a cost to the system of about $22 per passenger.
Since METRO was created in 1969, passenger transfers were made street side in downtown Akron. The new transit center, which opened in January 2009, provides safer, off-street transfers and much more.
It features an enclosed waiting area for 300 people, a meeting room (open to the public and free to nonprofits,) and the Urbean Café which started as a kiosk in late 2009 and expanded recently to a full-service café. The facility has a public art space managed by Artists of Rubber City, more than 90 security cameras and even an Akron Police Department substation. It also houses the Greyhound Bus service and has space available for other possible tenants down the road.
The 14,000-square foot glass and steel center is equipped with alternative energy, heating and cooling systems. Its solar panel array (133 KW) was the largest single array in Ohio at the time it was built. It also has 45 geothermal wells (each more than 300 feet deep) for heating and cooling.
That eco-friendly design cuts energy consumption by 25 percent in the summer (less in winter) and saves METRO RTA about $12,000 per year in electricity usage. Even more surprisingly, it has become an income producer for METRO.
Because of new legislation passed after it was built, the center is expected to generate $50,000 per year from Duke Energy for the purchase of METRO’s Solar Renewal Energy Credit which the utility can use to offset its requirement to produce more energy from renewable sources.
Other new developments...
Bike racks have been installed on all line-service buses to make it easier for people to bike and ride.
A new South Arlington Road circulator route and an extension of an existing route to the Stow courthouse were added last year.
Plans for a possible rapid transit route on the East and West Market corridors (similar to Euclid corridor project in Cleveland) are in the initial stages.
With a $1 million grant from the State of Ohio, Department of Development, METRO is adding an even larger solar array (488KW) to its Kenmore Boulevard bus barn.
The system will introduce its first hybrid diesel/electric bus in April to coincide with Earth Day. It will continue running promotions like Dump the Pump day offering free rides June 17 and its “Traffic Jam” community party in September to encourage more people to try the bus.
Will Summit County ever become less dependent on cars and more oriented toward public transportation?
“I think it’s gonna have to,” Becker says. “Even though you can get around Akron pretty quickly by car, I think economic and green concerns are making people more open to public transportation,” she says. “Especially if we can make our system more user-friendly. The more options we can give people, the better.”