The Galveston City Council has very little choice but to approve cutting some of the bus services Island Transit operates along traditional fixed routes.
Cuts to public services are never good news, especially cuts to services used by low-income people. The cuts at issue now, however, are being driven by many numbers, some very large and all running in the wrong direction.
The council on Jan. 25 is scheduled to consider whether to cut Island Transit’s nighttime bus service, which would bring the struggling transit system within budget in 2018 for the first time in years, Assistant City Manager Rick Beverlin said at a public meeting Thursday.
The proposal comes just months after the council created the route, consolidating several nighttime and weekend bus lines into one island-wide option.
While several other routes operate during the day, the lifeline is the island’s only nighttime route, the only bus option after 7:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and the only option on weekends.
The city has proposed eliminating the route on weekdays, as well as cutting the service after 7:30 p.m. on weekends. The city has alternatively looked at widening the service area of the route by extending wait times between bus stops to an hour, instead of 30 minutes, Beverlin said.
“I wish I had a different message to deliver right now,” Beverlin said. “But we want to keep Island Transit whole and above water.”
Island Transit officials this year have worked to offset a loss of more than $1 million in state and federal funding — about a quarter of the bus service’s operating costs, Beverlin said.
Much of that decline in funding occurred after the city lost its “small urban” status when the population dipped below 50,000 people after Hurricane Ike struck in 2008. The city was given “rural” status, meaning it was no longer eligible for $750,000 in annual federal funding it had received.
The city made up for much of that loss with supplemental funding from the Houston-Galveston Area Council, but that expired at the end of the 2017 fiscal year.
Added to the problem is a consistent drop in ridership over the years, Beverlin said. Weekday ridership on the lifeline route has also been low, with two buses combined collecting not even $30 a day in fares during the week, he said.
Ridership on the system’s fixed routes dropped by almost 50 percent after Hurricane Ike, according to a report by the city staff. It rose some between about 2010 and 2013, but has dropped pretty sharply since about 2014.
As a result, fewer people used the fixed-route buses in 2016 than did in 2010, according to the staff report.
This isn’t a matter of whether the public transportation should be subsidized with public money. There may be an exception somewhere, but, in general, all public transit systems are subsidized to some extent.
The question is how much can local taxpayers afford to subsidize a system that seems to be attracting fewer and fewer users each year?
The council should approve the staff recommendation to cut Island Transit’s nighttime route, but should continue to look for ways to help people get to work and other places.
It should consider partnerships with major employers and perhaps allowing more people to use Island Transit’s “Dial-a-Ride” program, which has seen increased ridership in recent years. That service is restricted to elderly and disabled people, but perhaps it should be opened to people with low-wage jobs.
• Michael A. Smith