Galveston officials should drop the city’s nighttime bus route, but should look for cheaper ways to accommodate people who need that public transit option.
The city and those bus riders are now in a lose-lose situation with the “lifeline” route the city council approved in May to control costs at a time of declining ridership and loss of federal grant funding.
The island-wide bus route loops from 81st Street to the East End and is the only option on evenings and weekends.
But the route’s consistently low ridership Mondays through Fridays has prompted the city to propose cutting 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 recently.
The city has also proposed cutting the service after 7:30 p.m. on weekends but continuing the lifeline route during the day.
It’s a simple matter of numbers, and the numbers don’t look good.
It costs the city about $640 a day to operate the route’s two buses running four hours each, about $80 an hour for each bus, city officials said. But the buses are each generating on average of only about $5 an hour in fares.
“We have evenings that when they pull into the vaults in the morning, there’s $25, $30,” Assistant City Manager Rick Beverlin said. “There’s been as low as $16.”
The rest has to be covered with money other than the user fees. Public transportation is not a moneymaker in most places, probably isn’t anywhere, but it should come closer than that to covering its own costs.
As in most other places, Galveston’s public transit system always has relied on substantial subsidies, including about $750,000 a year in federal transportation funding.
A problem arose in 2010, when the U.S. Census put the city’s population at less than 50,000, making it ineligible for the federal money. The need for a subsidy remained, but the pool of taxpayers contributing to it suddenly got a lot smaller.
Things may get even tighter in 2018 when a $500,000 a-year grant from the Houston-Galveston Area Council is set to expire.
The only relevant question for the city council is this: How much can general revenue taxpayers be expected to kick in for a bus service that very few people use?
The only answer is very little.
At the same time, however, the people who need the service need it very badly. It may be one of things that stands between them and unemployment.
City staff members say they are looking for other ways to accommodate that need. We urge the city council to give them time to come up with a plan before they cut the lifeline route and leave people in a lurch.
District 6 Councilwoman Carolyn Sunseri made a good point about the issue when she noted last week that many people who rely on the bus services work unconventional hours in the tourism industry.
“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.
Perhaps there’s an opportunity for the city and those tourism industry businesses to partner and share some of the costs of getting workers to their jobs.
• Michael A. Smith