Rising use, congestion slow buses

Here's the good news: More people are riding the bus.

The bad news? Increased ridership, combined with traffic congestion and other factors, is slowing buses down.

Since gas prices began spiking in February, the Rogue Valley Transportation District has seen bus ridership climb 6.5 percent, said RVTD Senior Planner Paige Townsend.

Buses are supposed to take up to two hours to travel from Ashland to Medford and back. Instead, busses are taking two and a half hours — or even longer.

People riding the bus can miss their connections at the main Front Street Station in Medford. The station serves as the hub for busses that fan out to Medford neighborhoods and the towns of Ashland, Phoenix, Talent, Jacksonville, White City and Central Point.

Passengers either have to wait for the next bus to come along, or if the last connecting bus has left at the end of the day, find a different way to get home.

"A whole lot of people are having to walk home because they can't make their bus transfer," RVTD General Manager Julie Brown said.

To better understand the problem, Ashland Public Works Director Mike Faught took two separate bus trips from Ashland to Medford and back with city and RVTD staff members.

The first round-trip took two hours and seven minutes. Staff members were barely able to make a connection. The second trip took two hours and 40 minutes, with 15 minutes of the delay caused because staff members missed a connection and had to wait for the next bus, Faught reported.

"Ridership was so high we were stopping at the majority of stops," he said.

Traffic congestion, construction and emergency vehicles also played a role, Faught said.

Lower speed limits are slowing buses, too. Ashland and other communities have lowered speed limits on stretches of their roads since the bus schedule was last adjusted in 2004, Townsend said.

RVTD is looking at spots in the Rogue Valley were it can trim service to speed up the bus circuits.

One such area is where the bus makes a loop on East Main Street in Ashland near Exit 14. There are no stops on a section of that loop, but busses use it because no other place has been found to turn around.

One suggestion was to turn busses around in the Windmill Inn & Suites parking lot near Exit 14, but that creates too many safety issues, Brown said.

For now, RVTD and city staff members are exploring options for speeding bus service. They may conclude in coming weeks that one of the best ways to save time is to cut back service along the East Main Street loop.

RVTD has not proposed eliminating the loop altogether.

Instead, it would end morning to evening service and instead run busses past there from 5:52 a.m. to 8:56 a.m., from 12:22 p.m. to 12:56 p.m., and from 5:22 p.m. to 7:26 p.m.

Still, news of the possible service cuts alarmed city of Ashland officials, who have made support of the bus system a priority. During the spring budget process, the Ashland City Council decided to kick in up to $217,500 this fiscal year to keep bus fare for trips within Ashland at 50 cents per trip. Bus fare is $2 elsewhere in the valley. Valley Lift trips for the elderly and disabled cost $1 within Ashland, but $4 in other towns.

RVTD staff members are looking at different ways to speed up busses. They could try a signal priority system like one that is being used in Eugene. Busses there can send a signal to a traffic light to extend a green light so they can get through. If the light is already red, busses can send a signal that causes a green light to come on more quickly, Townsend said.

This spring, RVTD will ask voters to approve a payroll tax to improve the bus system. The amount of the measure is yet to be determined.

With more money, RVTD could extend its current hours, which run from 5 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., to 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. It could also launch Saturday bus service and add more routes to places such as Rogue Community College and the business Amy's Kitchen in White City, Townsend said.

By federal law, RVTD must have a balanced budget.

A common misconception is that with increased ridership, RVTD should be making enough extra money to boost services, she said.

But income from fares makes up only 10 to 20 percent of RVTD's budget, with the rest coming from property taxes and state and federal grants, Townsend said.

Nevertheless, when people ride the bus, that helps RVTD and everyone who uses the road, including people driving their own cars, she said.

"The more people are using the bus system, walking and riding their bikes, the less congestion there will be," Townsend said.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com. To post a comment, visit www.dailytidings.com.

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