Turlock bus ridership sees big drop since fares hiked

Taking the bus costs 66 percent more, rising from 75 cents to $1.25
Taking the bus costs 66 percent more, rising from 75 cents to $1.25 Modesto Bee

TURLOCK -- After fare increases and route changes, city bus ridership is dropping off at an alarming rate. January saw almost 40 percent fewer riders than one year ago.

Bus Line Services of Turlock, known as BLAST, saw a 16 percent decrease in ridership in September, the month fares climbed 66 percent or more. Compared with the previous year, October ridership was down 23 percent, November was down 31 percent, and December figures fell a whopping 44 percent. In January, it seemed to level off with a 39 percent decrease from a year earlier.

The cost of a regular adult bus ticket went up 66 percent in September, from 75 cents to $1.25, after the bus hub was moved from downtown to Donnelly Park in August. Disabled and senior rates climbed 71 percent from 35 cents to 60 cents.

Modesto Area Express and Stanislaus Regional Transit buses charge $1 for adults and 50 cents to 85 cents for seniors and the disabled.

Before September, bus fares hadn't changed since 1998, and had changed only once since 1992.

To collect state funds, 15 percent of a city's transit costs must be made up in fares, said Scott Medeiros, the city's transit planner. Before the 2000 census, Turlock wasn't an urban area and had to collect only 10 percent of its costs through tickets. City planners avoided hiking rates until the last hour, in summer of last year.

Why a blanket increase instead of adding a few more percentage points every year?

"The reality is short staffing," Medeiros said. "Every year, we said it needed to be addressed, but we never got around to it."

Planners timed the moving of the bus hub from downtown to Donnelly Park to happen just before the increase. It was thought that Donnelly Park, a central location, would allow for a 30-minute loop time instead of 45 minutes, making the schedule faster and easier to remember. This month, the schedule will be pushed back to 35 minutes, because 30-minute runs are too tight, Medeiros said.

In the 2007 fiscal year, there were more than 155,000 bus riders in Turlock, a 22 percent increase from 2006.

Whenever rates rise, ridership drops temporarily, Medeiros said. He hopes December, with its 44 percent decrease, remains the low point.

"It's an ugly situation, but I hope it's stabilized," he said.

Modesto has seen ridership increase.

"Our six months ridership ending in December was up 5.3 percent," said Fred Cavanah, Modesto's transit manager.

Public transportation ridership is directly connected to the economy, he said. More jobs, more people riding the bus to work; more money, more shopping trips. But it still is hard to predict ridership levels or understand exactly what's affecting them.

"Frequently it boggles the mind," Cavanah said. "It's an art more than a science."

Bee staff writer Michael R. Shea can be reached at mshea@modbee.com or 578-2391.