Monday, 20 May 2024

Bus ridership hits record levels thanks to higher gas prices

LAKE COUNTY – As county residents have struggled with rising gas prices over the past year, they've found one attractive option to help pay less at the pump.

It's called public transit.

“We've had steady growth through the year,” said Mark Wall, transit manager for the Lake Transit Authority.

In the 2007-08 fiscal year, ridership grew by 8 percent in the first, quarter, 15 percent in the second, 20 percent in the third and in the fourth, 27 percent, said Wall.

Those increases were helped by a few factors, said Wall, including improved service on the transit authority's route one, which runs along Highway 20.

But the big jump came when gas prices began climbing steeply. “All of a sudden ridership really went through the roof,” he said.

As a comparison, he points to July 2008's ridership numbers, which hit 30,126, putting it at 45-percent above July 2007.

“Ridership is up particularly on any route that goes a long distance,” Wall said.

Big ridership changes were noted on route one along Highway 20 and the Northshore, which increased in passengers by 55 percent; route three from Calistoga to Middletown; route four, running between Clearlake and Lakeport on Highway 29; and route seven to Ukiah.

“The bad news was we were overbudget,” said Wall.

Rising fuel prices, which increased the numbers of people using the bus, also proved a primary cause of the budget overrun. Wall said the authority had planned to spent $289,000 on fuel for the year, but ran over by 16 percent, ending up at $333,800.

In the past year, the authority also changed contractors, with Laidlaw's contract ceasing in July of 2007, to be succeeded by Paratransit Services, said Wall. “It's been a much better situation this year with our new contractor.”

Wall, who also manages Del Norte County's transit authority, notes that bus ridership is up all over the state.

Lake County is on the high end, noted Wall, higher even than some urban areas when it comes to the increases in use it's seeing. That's because people move to transit services more when they live in areas where there are greater distance to travel.

Wall noted that Del Norte County is seeing even more new ridership than Lake, thanks to revisions in its transit system.

That's one big concern here in Lake County – how to make the service more available and useful to a wider range of customers.

“Over the years we've seen a wide variety of people who use the service, but most of them are low income,” he said.

However, Lake Transit recently conducted a ridership survey, said Wall. “We're getting people we've never heard from before.”

Employees in some county offices are using the transit to go to work, and Wall said Social Services now wants to sell monthly passes at their site.

Wall said they're working on a transit development plan, which includes adding more commuter-oriented runs on routes one along the Northshore and four, between Clearlake and Lakeport.

One way to expand the service is to add to its range of hours. Most routes run from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, said Wall, with only one going until 8 p.m.

He said the authority has just applied for a grant to add morning and evening runs between Clearlake and Calistoga with connections to Lakeport, and an evening run between the Lakeport and Clearlake.

But the hope of expanding the service may be hampered by the state's raiding of transit assistance fund monies, which comes from sales tax. Those funds have been gobbled up by the state budget process the past two years, which Wall said will likely happen again this year.

“We're supposed to be receiving more money from state than likely to see,” said Wall.

Transit agencies all over the state want to expand their services but are being hampered because those funds are drying up, said Wall.

While Lake Transit would like to revise its services to meet greater demands, Wall said the process will have to move more slowly than they would like and will be predicated on the availability of money.

If gas prices remain high, Wall said he expects over the long term for transit to become more like it used to be, with more private ownership and less public subsidies.

In the mean time, Lake Transit is focusing on some small changes that can have big returns, such as having its service and routes added to Google's transit tracking service. They're also installing a new bus tracking system to see if buses are running on time, since late buses have proved a problem for the system.

They are planning for several new route changes next January and February, with a third bus route set for Clearlake, and modifications being considered for a few of the other routes as well, said Wall. If they get their grant, they may be able to run some routes more often, especially during commute times.

The eventual goal for route one along the Northshore, said Wall, is to have hourly bus runs. Those runs used to take four hours, and now are down to two.

In the fall of 2009, Lake Transit is aiming to add another Lakeport route, which will move from the city's northern area down to Konocti Vista Casino, looping through town and onto the freeway.

Wall added that Lake Transit is partnering with the Area Agency on Aging to do a senior transportation project between Clearlake Oaks and Spring Valley.

Another challenge for the future is enough buses, and the right kind of buses, to enable Lake Transit to meet its growing demands.

Lake Transit currently has 20 buses but it needs more, with two on order, said Wall, and three more, smaller buses also soon to be ordered. Depending on the state budget, more also could be purchased soon to both enlarge the fleet and replace aging buses.

Wall said the authority's buses are diesel. They're discussing other possible fuel alternatives as they look at the future, with hybrid vehicles offering promise. Hybrids using compressed natural gas tend to run between $400,000 and $500,000 for a new bus, compared to $200,000 for a new diesel bus, said Wall.

Biodiesel also might work if a consistent local or regional source were available. However, Wall added, “It's got a lot of problems for us to use.”

E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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