Public Transit System Poised for Season

By MARCUS TONTI

The bus speaks.

"Card not valid," says a computerized voice to a boarding passenger who doesn't insert his bus pass into the farebox properly. But the driver quickly lends a hand, and the Route 1 bus is on its way from Edgartown to Vineyard Haven.

As summer nears, the new electronic fareboxes are probably the most noticeable addition to Vineyard Transit Authority buses. In previous years, drivers kept track of riders with pencil and paper, making tickmarks as folks got on or off. But the new boxes, a state-funded purchase at $12,000 apiece, were installed several weeks ago and will allow the Island bus company to more precisely monitor its clientele - tracking how many passengers use which routes, and other details - so it can better plan future service.

Savvy Islanders will insert pass cards into the new machines that cost $70 for the year or $25 per month. They're available at the visitors center on Church street in Edgartown.

"The bus is the best thing on the Vineyard, pricewise," says rider Deborah Magiera of Oak Bluffs. "I do have a car, but [the bus] is convenient - you take it into town."

Ms. Magiera enjoys not worrying about parking. "I used to take a taxi; now I just take this," she says.

The availability of one, three and seven-day passes costing $5, $10 and $15 means that visitors, too, may obtain multiple-fare discounts. Drivers make clear that it's generally most economical for people to buy some type of pass.

And they do - an informal survey of passengers on a midday bus from Vineyard Haven to Edgartown turns up five visitors from New Bern, N.C., and Houston, each of whom has an unlimited pass. Tourists can buy them at the SSA terminal, or as they get on any bus.

They're among the more than 700,000 riders who will have ridden the authority's white and purple vehicles when the fiscal year ends on June 30, according to VTA director Angela Gompert. That's up from 364,000 in fiscal year 2001, incredible growth by any standard.

Contrary to what some Islanders may believe, Ms. Gompert says, Vineyard buses accommodate "a wide range of passengers" that includes many locals.

A quick jaunt bears this out. On one midday bus about a third full, Ms. Magiera of Oak Bluffs tells a reporter about her experience.

"Last fall I had an operation," she says. "I used the bus a lot. I found it great when I couldn't drive for a couple of weeks."

Amelia Hatchard of Vineyard Haven is another frequent passenger. "It's definitely helped me a lot," says the high school student, who catches the bus today after staying late at school.

She has a weekend job in Edgartown, and says she will work even more often after school lets out. "I'll take the bus two times a day, six days a week," she says. "I pretty much get anywhere I want." Like other Island students, she was able to purchase an annual pass for only $35.

Other passengers are returning from work in downtown Edgartown. One lives on the Island year-round and doesn't have a car; the other, a U.K. resident here for the summer, uses the bus to supplement his bicycle; it's worked out great so far, he says.

While VTA supplements federal, state and local funding with farebox collections, advertising revenue and interest income, it faced the challenge this year of dealing with reductions in state monies available to local transit systems. To offset budget cuts, extended service hours won't be implemented for a few weeks more, and fares have risen, too.

Single-ride passengers now pay $1 per town along their itinerary - $2 from Edgartown to West Tisbury, for example, and $4 from Vineyard Haven to Aquinnah, since four towns lie along that route. Seniors who previously rode for free must pay half-price. And a successful 2001 program that made bus passes available to employees of Island businesses went unfunded.

In addition, the Edgartown "harborlights" loop has been eliminated - although the Route 11 bus between the Triangle and downtown is now free. And, in a well-publicized move, the primary bus transfer site in West Tisbury was relocated from Alley's General Store to Cronig's up-Island; residents had objected to buses lingering in the historic town center.

Despite these tweaks, service remains largely the same in terms of getting from place to place Islandwide. VTA vehicles continue to travel along virtually every major thoroughfare down-Island and up, reducing vehicle traffic and congestion and providing transit in all weather conditions to people without regular access to an automobile.

Passengers may wait at designated stops or simply wave to flag a bus down; the vehicles will stop just about anywhere they can do so safely.

"I don't see how anyone who's an Islander can complain about buses," says Ted Leslie of Aquinnah, driver of the Route 1 bus between Edgartown and Vineyard Haven. "This bus alone" - there are 10 passengers when he says this - "is keeping 10 cars off the road right now."

Mr. Leslie, a year-round driver, is a persuasive ambassador for the system. Obviously knowledgeable about service, he informs visitors that the first bus to Vineyard Haven will depart at 7:07 a.m., and then every half hour. The next bus to Oak Bluffs? Twenty minutes.

He's a friendly guy who chats amicably with visitors and acknowledges his regular passengers - at least "until the first beach day starts," he says. "Then I won't know anybody." Most bus drivers, he says, recognize the workers who go in and out of the towns, and make a special point to help any passengers with special needs.

The systemwide map and schedule, available on every bus, enables users of the network to plan ahead. Produced in-house, the multicolored map delineates the 12 routes and notes Island landmarks along the way. It includes insets for the centers of Edgartown, Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven and compares favorably to big-city transit maps in terms of ease of use and information contained therein.

A couple of buses won't start until June 22, but otherwise the VTA offers service along all of its routes at least once every hour. On major down-Island routes, the headways - the time between buses - are a half-hour.

At the peak of the season, still a month away, some buses will run only 15 minutes apart. That's a good thing, because they will fill up at the height of summer. One such bus - Route 13 along Beach Road - is constantly full in the summer, with passengers standing the length of the bus, says Mr. Leslie.

The VTA has added one new bus this year and would benefit from a few more 37-footers, Ms. Gompert says. "We have some capacity problems," she says. "That's the next nut to crack," a few years away.

Right now, service begins as early as 6:30 a.m. on some routes and extends past 10 p.m. on others. During the peak of the season, some buses will start their routes before 6 a.m. and run until almost 2 a.m.

These extended hours accommodate employees in the service industry who may work quite early or late during the height of summer, Ms. Gompert says. Some, she adds, want more late buses outside of the down-Island town centers, but not too surprisingly, that is "not cost effective.

"We're not going to meet everyone's needs," she says, "but I'm confident we're helping the majority."

The VTA is currently building a new operations and maintenance center near the airport, "catching up on infrastructure," Ms. Gompert says, after a few years of rapid growth. The center is projected to be complete in October.

The Island towns and state have been very supportive, she says, and passengers have been loyal as well.

"The quality of service is important to me, not just the quantity," Ms. Gompert says. "It's important to provide a quality service.

"What we have built has been very rewarding."