It was a banner year for the Vineyard Transit Authority, which posted its highest ridership numbers ever. But while an unprecedented number of passengers chose public transit on the Island this summer, transit authority administrator Angela Grant said her organization could use some relief.
“We should be running more bus service than we actually are, but we don’t have the funding to do it,” she said.
Yesterday Roland Goulart pulled up to the Edgartown post office as he always does, ready to whisk map-toting out-of-towners and skateboard-clutching teeny-boppers across the Island. Mr. Goulart, who has been driving with the VTA for 12 years, is not certain whether he’s seen more riders than ever, but he does know that during his tenure the popularity of the VTA has consistently grown.
“Usually from 10 o’clock in the morning until six o’clock in the evening, it’s standing room only in the summer, right to the white line,” he said about his up-Island route number 13 bus.
It has been a long journey for the VTA itself, which began in 1980 as a limited van service for the elderly and disabled and has since grown to become one of the most successful public transit systems in the state.
Mrs. Grant, who has served as the administrator for 15 years, has overseen that transformation which has only taken place in earnest over the last decade. Winter service has been offered for the past seven years.
“In terms of doing what we now know as our regular business, we’re still relatively new at it,” Mrs. Grant said. “It’s been rewarding for me, though, in that when you start you’re carrying 100,000 people and years later you’re carrying 1.1 million.”
This July she said it was almost “uncomfortable” transporting the record 290,248 passengers (up over 20,000 from last year’s previous record high) around the Island.
“A lot of the buses were extremely full, and as an agency based on our spares [buses] and our staffing it was really pushing the limits of what we were able to do well,” she said.
She surmises that the huge jump in numbers is attributable to rising fuel costs, great summer weather and word of mouth about reliable public transportation on the Island.
Even in August, while the Oak Bluffs harbor and the Steamship Authority reported hits from Hurricane Irene, the Vineyard Transit Authority still gained riders from the previous year, if only a modest 3,000. In September ridership jumped more than 15,000 passengers from 2010.
“I think that the transit system is catching on with a lot more different market segments than it has in the past,” Mrs. Grant said, citing the increase in student and elderly passes issued. “We have a very broad range of people that we serve.”
With great success however, come strains in a transportation system that unlike an urban transit system, has no guaranteed funding stream for fleet replacement or spare buses. The VTA is funded by fares as well as federal, state and town money. Three years ago it received $2.24 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the so-called stimulus bill) for the purchase and operation of nine new buses, but Ms. Grant said however welcome, the cash injection was a one-off stopgap.
“When we really started to get going in 1999 we bought eight or 10 buses and then those buses obviously needed to be retired at the end of their useful life,” she said. “When [the stimulus] came in we ended up doing the same thing. While that was great to get a big chunk of the fleet replaced, in another 10 years I’m going to be looking at the same problem with no reliable stream of money to replace those.”
Luckily, Ms. Grant said, at 37.7 per cent, the VTA also boasts the highest fare recovery rate in the state. Which is to say for every dollar spent on the operation of the system, the VTA recovers 37 cents in fares.
“We’re very efficient, so our cost per passenger is low,” she said.
Still the VTA has been level funded by the state for the past three years while its operational costs have jumped due to fuel costs. To offset that balance, the VTA has been forced to raise fares.
“I spend a significant amount of time reminding the state of our needs,” Ms. Grant said. “Funding is always going to be a challenge for transit and the economic benefits are not as prominent in policy makers’ minds perhaps as they should be.”