By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
VISALIA – Bus ridership nationwide is on the decline but the cost of providing service continues to rise putting pressure on local transportation agencies to be more efficient with their time and dollars.
Those efficiencies normally result in reduced service and higher fares, which it what Visalia Transit riders will see this year. At its Jan. 16 meeting, the Visalia City Council voted to realign several routes, increase fares, and stop service a half hour earlier on weekdays and almost an hour earlier on the weekend.
Christine Chavez, an analyst for Visalia Transit, said the biggest changes will be made to Routes 9 and 12 servicing Farmersville and Exeter. Route 12, Visalia to Exeter along Visalia Road, would continue service to Farmersville but not to Exeter, where it made a loop around downtown. Instead, Route 12 would be modified to turn south on Farmersville Boulevard to accommodate a senior housing facility near the southern limits of Farmersville where the City has already curbed and paved a bus turnaround at Roy Park. Route 12 ranks 11th in total ridership with under 61,000 boardings in FY 2016, or 3.9% of the system total. Estimated average daily ridership is 197 boardings per weekday, 110 boardings per Saturday, and 93 boardings per Sunday. Key destinations along the route include Exeter Union HS, Citrus Plaza/Savemart, Sequoia Mall, Costco and Packwood Creek Shopping Center. Route 12 is below average in terms of weekday service productivity, and significantly below average on weekends.
Route 9 would continue to provide service to all current stops in Exeter and riders will be able to transfer to Route 12 in Farmersville. The number of buses on Route 9 would be reduced from three to two, which would reduce the cost of providing service to Exeter. No routes would travel directly on Visalia Road into Palm Street to Kaweah Avenue (Highway 65). Route 9 ranks ninth in total ridership with almost 75,000 boardings) in FY 2016, or 4.9% of the system total. Estimated average daily ridership is 243 boardings per weekday, 136 boardings per Saturday, and 115 boardings per Sunday. Key destinations outside the downtown area include Exeter Union HS, Citrus Plaza/Savemart, Farmersville post office, Farmersville HS, Visalia Flea Market (E Noble Avenue), R-N Market and Mary’s Vineyard Shopping Center. Route 9 is in the bottom third of the fixed route network in terms of productivity performance on weekdays and weekends.
“Both the Farmersville and Exeter City Councils approved the draft plan,” Chavez said.
Other route changes include extending Route 2, 4 and 5, shortening Route 6, realigning Routes 7, 8 and 16, discontinuing Route 3, and modifying Route 15. No changes will be made to Route 1. The route changes will take affect in May.
In August, the City will increase fares and reduce service hours. One-way and Day Pass fares will increase by 25 cents to $1.75 and $3.50. The 7-Day Pass will increase from $10 to $14 and the 31-Day Pass will increase from $40 to $50. All routes will end at 10 p.m. on weekdays and 7 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday beginning in August. Ridership drops off significantly after 6 p.m. on the weekends from an hourly average of 300 people to just 62 people between 6 and 7 p.m. Weekday ridership sees a similar drop after 9 p.m. from an hourly average of 500 people to just 43 between 9 and 10 p.m. Weekday routes will still begin at 6 a.m. on weekdays and 8 a.m. on weekends.
“It’s unreasonable to have buses with fewer than three people,” said Councilmember Greg Collins. “It’s unacceptable to have an inefficient system.”
The Visalia Towne Trolley route was eliminated on Sept. 30 because it operates within a quarter mile of four fixed routes. The trolley is still available for special events in downtown such as “Holly Trolley” during the holiday shopping season; however, even the holiday service is being evaluated to decide if it will continue in future years.
Councilmember Phil Cox suggested offering more Dial-A-Ride buses on the weekend along with the reduced buses and hours on fixed routes. He said the cost of Dial-A-Ride might be five times higher than fixed routes but the buses only run when people request service, reducing the hours and cost and providing a more direct route from doorstep to destination. Cox then made the motion to move forward with identifying transit hubs covering regions of the network, approve fare increases and reduce service hours in August and implement route changes in May. He also amended the recommendation to have staff return in six months with ridership numbers by hour on each route for a single week. Cox said he wanted to eliminate hours of the day where buses had less than three riders for the entire hour.