Island transportation officials have proposed cutting the city’s nighttime bus route just months after rolling out the service.
Galveston City Council approved the “lifeline” route in May as a response to declining ridership and a loss in federal grant funding. The island-wide bus route loops from 81st Street to the East End and is the only option for passengers on evenings and weekends. Other bus routes still operate at their regular times on weekdays.
But the route’s consistently low ridership Mondays through Fridays has prompted the city to propose a cut to the route entirely during the week, meaning no fixed-route buses would run from 7:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. on weekdays, Assistant City Manager Rick Beverlin said at a Thursday city council workshop. The city has also proposed cutting the service after 7:30 p.m. on weekends but continuing the lifeline route during the day.
“I know this is maybe a sensitive issue for some people, but we’re down a significant amount of money,” Beverlin said. “I wish there was another answer.”
Each bus on the lifeline route costs $80 an hour to operate, Beverlin said. With two buses running per hour for four hours during the week, that equals $640 in overhead a day.
The buses don’t come close to breaking even, Beverlin said. Each lifeline bus averages $5 in fares collected an hour, Beverlin said. The two buses combined would then collect an average of $40 a day during the week.
“We have evenings that when they pull into the vaults in the morning, there’s $25, $30,” Beverlin said. “There’s been as low as $16.”
The city approved a budget in September that reduced its general fund allocation to Island Transit by $180,000. In the 2010 census, Galveston’s population declined and made the city ineligible for $750,000 in annual federal transportation funding it had previously received.
Since then, the city had recovered most of that amount. But in 2018, the city is set to lose another $500,000 in grant funding from the Houston-Galveston Area Council, Beverlin has said.
“We’re really rural now in terms of our funding,” Beverlin said.
Operating the lifeline route with only a few people on the bus doesn’t make good financial sense, City Manager Brian Maxwell said at the council workshop.
“There’s a reason why most cities our size don’t have transit services because you simply can’t afford to operate them on everybody’s schedule on local tax dollars,” Maxwell said.
The council hasn’t yet voted on the proposed change and will hold a public meeting first, Beverlin said.
Many of the people who rely on the bus services are people in the tourism industry who might not work conventional hours, Councilwoman Carolyn Sunseri, of District 6, said.
“My only concern is, those that like I said are hourly employees that might work at some of these larger hotels, that depend on public transportation,” Sunseri said.
Some people will be inconvenienced by the change, but taxpayer money can’t be used to subsidize a bus service that serves very few people, Maxwell said.
“You have to balance that out,” Maxwell said.
Mayor Jim Yarbrough suggested that the city find a better, cheaper system to transport people than what Island Transit is currently providing. The two options on the table, continuing to reduce routes or just cut certain services entirely, aren’t ideal, he said.
“You can have a slow death, reduce routes, change that, change that,” Yarbrough said. “Or, you can slice a bad deal off and be done with it. I’m not saying either one of those is a good option.”
Saturday ridership on the lifeline route is comparatively high, however, Beverlin said. Island Transit sees more riders on Saturdays than on Mondays through Fridays combined, he said.
Making cuts to service at night should be able to carry the city through to the next census, when Galveston is expected to break the 50,000-person threshold and be eligible for federal funding, Beverlin said.
City Attorney Don Glywasky pointed out that some relief could be coming soon. Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Randy Weber, both Republicans, have filed duplicate bills in Congress to ensure that cities whose populations drop after a hurricane or other natural disaster do not take an extra hit by losing funding while they recover.
The city hasn’t yet come up with a full solution on how to get affected riders replacement transportation, Beverlin said. The city has recommended that the city council extends a subsidized taxi program, called Harris County RIDES, before it expires in May 2018.
Other potential cost savings in the future would be to move the League City Park and Ride, which is mostly subsidized through Island Transit, to another operator in early 2018, Beverlin said. Revising or canceling the Port of Galveston shuttle before the end of 2018 also is an option, Beverlin said.
The city council on Thursday did unanimously approve an amended bus service agreement with the University of Texas Medical Branch, revising how the city is compensated and eliminating free shuttle trips for patients, visitors and employees.
Any other sort of solution, such as a cheaper city-subsidized taxi service, hasn’t been determined, Beverlin said.
“There may be another type of service down the road we can look at,” Beverlin said. “But what we’re operating right now isn’t cutting it.”