New Gainesville resident Kim Towe says she will really benefit from the additional services the city’s bus system will offer starting Oct. 1.
The Red Rabbit service will undergo changes that basically reverse those made by Hall County in fiscal year 2013 that raised rates and reduced hours of operation.
Phillippa Lewis Moss, director of the Gainesville-Hall Community Service Center, said Thursday those changes were “harmful” and made the recommendations to the Gainesville City Council.
The council approved the adjustments, which include adding 10 more stops or places to the existing routes, increasing hours of operation and simplifying the fare structure.
“I think it’s a great thing to try to turn around the losses in ridership from last year,” Councilwoman Ruth Bruner said after the meeting.
Both governments scrambled for a solution after the Hall County Board of Commissioners declined in April to apply for $400,000 in federal money to operate the fixed-route bus service after the fiscal year ended June 30. Hall Area Transit is housed under the center, which is jointly supported by both the city and county.
Gainesville took over full financial responsibility for the bus system for fiscal year 2014 that started July 1. Hall County took full financial responsibility for the reservation bus system Dial-A-Ride that serves more people in the county.
“We want people to be able to rely on a system that will there in the future and that is stable and there’s not any kind of controversy over whether we should have it or not,” Bruner said. “Even though we’re a small city, we still want to have a good transit system.”
The Federal Transit Administration pays half of the operating cost for Red Rabbit and the city pays the other 50 percent. Previously, the two governments split the cost of both systems equally, 25 percent of Red Rabbit and 25 percent of Dial-A-Ride.
Moss said the transition was smooth, but the uncertainty frustrated passengers and caused consumer confidence to drop. She’s grateful to the city for supporting the Red Rabbit.
“It was pretty seamless,” she said. “The city council has consistently articulated their support for public transit.”
Ridership dropped about 45 percent in fiscal year 2013, which ran from July 1, 2012, to June 30, from about 240,000 rides to 156,000 rides. Cost-per-trip rose from $3.05 per ride to $4.65, reversing a trend Moss and her staff had worked on for several years.
Raising the price from $1 to $1.25 per ride brought in about $19,000 more in fares, but the money had to be split with the FTA and the local governments. Moss said the city and county each saved about $4,800 in operating costs from the cost-saving measures.
“That’s the whole point,” she said. “I said ‘You saved $4,000 at the expense of almost 100,000 rides.’”
Red Rabbit gained a new passenger about two weeks ago when Towe moved to Gainesville. Her eyes widen and she smiles broadly as she hears of Moss’ upcoming plans. Towe works at the Goodwill store in Oakwood, one of 10 sites to be added to the seven routes.
“That would help me out a lot,” Towe said.
Other places include the Walmart in Oakwood and Avita Community Partners off Mabry Road. Hours of operation will extend from current hours of 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. during the week to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. It will not run on weekends.
Towe’s work schedule varies; sometimes she has be at work by 7:30 a.m. and she sometimes doesn’t get off until 9:30 p.m. It can cost $10 to take a taxi one way, she said.
“Oh wow, that would be wonderful,” she said. “When I get off at like 5 (p.m.) I could still use the Red Rabbit instead of trying to take a taxi.”
Fares will also go to $1, simplifying rates for both passengers and the transit administration. Rides would be free for seniors ages 60 and older, children ages 7 and under and those who are disabled, if they register with the transit office and pay $3 for an identification card good for two years.
Towe said these changes will save her a minimum of $20 a week, a lot for someone on a limited income. Passenger demographics show the majority of riders are female, have no car and have incomes less $15,000 a year, Moss said.
Towe could use the money she would have previously used for transportation for groceries or on her three children, she said.
Extending current services is not expected to increase the budget, but Moss expects to pick up more riders through the modifications. She is trying to rebuild the ridership and putting the service back on the right track. She is not worried about losing money by making these changes if they keep a close watch on the budget.
“In our case, because we’re still considered a young system, our goal has to be building the routes, building the ridership and as it becomes a more efficient system, I’ll be the first one to say it’s time to raise rates,” Moss said.