Though revenues are up, Sun Tran ridership continues steady decline
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Road Runner

Though revenues are up, Sun Tran ridership continues steady decline

Average monthly ridership for the first four months of 2018 is down roughly 100,000 from the same period in 2017.

Last summer, this column explored declines in Sun Tran bus ridership, a trend that has continued steadily.

Comparing recent months to the same month the year prior, there has now been a year and a half of uninterrupted decline, according to reports tracked by the Road Runner. Average monthly ridership for the first four months of 2018 — 1.26 million — is down roughly 100,000 from the same period in 2017.

This local trend is mirrored across the country, where low gasoline prices and other factors — like the expansion of ride-hailing services like Lyft and Uber — have contributed to comparable drops, according to a recent study from the Congressional Research Service. A factor unique to Tucson was the 2015 bus strike, which crippled service and cratered ridership. An improving local economy has also made cars more accessible to more people, one transit official said.

At the same time, system revenues have been moving — modestly — in the opposite direction, but are still falling short of projections for the increased fares approved by the City Council in September 2016. Those increases are also often cited as a factor in declining ridership. The shortfall is about $1 million for the whole transit system, not just Sun Tran, according to Joyce Garland, the city’s chief financial officer.

The city is now reviewing operations, and looking at “scaling back some of the lesser-used routes and focus really on the well-used routes,” among other measures that could improve efficiency, Garland said.

Starting in August as a part of that effort, four routes will see their frequency reduced slightly, changes that “will have minimal impact on ridership,” and save roughly $1 million over the coming fiscal year, according to a May 29 memo from Robin Raine, interim transportation director.

Such changes rub Brian Flagg of the Tucson Bus Riders Union the wrong way. The way he sees it, reducing service anywhere is a “surefire way to undermine ridership,” along with the environmental benefits of mass transit.

“I don’t really give a damn that their revenues are up,” he said. “I do care about ridership going down.”

While system revenues and ways to increase them or cut costs can be divisive issues, there is unanimity about the importance of reversing the downward ridership trend. The Road Runner chatted with a number of people, including riders, to hear some of their ideas.

“The fact that (ridership decline) is a national trend, also doesn’t mean that there’s nothing we can do about it,” Suzanne Schafer, the vice chairwoman of the city’s transit task force. As proof, she pointed to several cities that have bucked the trend, including Seattle and even Phoenix.

Steve Spade, Sun Tran’s general manager, said his company RATP Dev — formerly known as RDMT — hopes to study the current rate structure with the goal of “carrying the maximum number of people that we can.”

“Are there strategies that we can employ with our fares that will build ridership?” he said.

He mentioned “deep discounting” that could “stimulate ridership” over the long term, as well as stepped up outreach to different groups of riders — like students and downtown residents. He also said it’s important to make employers and residents along the frequent transit network aware of the service available.

Toni Encinas, who rides the bus four times a week, agreed that marketing and outreach could bear fruit, given the confusion she often sees about how to use SunGO cards and other fare issues. Schafer also feels a more full-throated marketing effort is critical.

“They end up paying double,” Encinas said of others who aren’t aware of the fare options available.

Spade also cautioned that part of the apparent decline in ridership could be explained by more efficient service. For example, a rider who can now get to their destination with one bus is counted as just one ride, whereas they would be counted as two if they had to transfer to another bus.

Another interesting idea getting kicked around these days is trying to incentivize residential developers to purchase transit passes for residents, in exchange for accommodations on parking requirements and other matters.

Councilman Steve Kozachik told the Road Runner he has had discussions with several developers about such arrangements, and thinks they could go a long way toward righting the ridership decline. Schafer also sees promise in the approach.

“All of these large student housing complexes, one of the challenges is parking, and increased traffic in the area,” he said. “To the extent that we can encourage them to buy transit passes and make them available to their residents, it directly addresses those immediate concerns.”

Kozachik would also like to see bus stops get better maintenance, and is asking for a review of the current contractor. Continued improvements to the frequent transit network, where buses come every 15 minutes or faster during weekdays, are also important, he said.

But for regular rider Steven Martinez, the solutions to declining ridership are simpler: lower the cost and improve the service, especially on Saturday and Sunday.

“It’s a good way to get around, except on the weekends,” he said of Sun Tran.

DOWN THE ROAD
  • On Monday, June 4, road crews will be tearing up a section of North Tucson Boulevard just south of East Grant Road to install a new storm drain detention basin. While there is construction, one lane of travel in each direction will be maintained on Tucson Boulevard. However, left turns from northbound Tucson Boulevard to westbound Grant and right turns from eastbound Grant to southbound Tucson Boulevard will be prohibited. Work is expected to wrap up in mid-July.
  • Additionally, a contractor for Southwest Gas will cause some traffic delays along East Eighth Street between North Santa Rita Avenue and North Park Avenue. The construction, related to pipeline improvements, should be complete in a few weeks.
  • On Monday, June 4, crews will begin work to install a new traffic signal at East Mary Ann Cleveland Way and South Atterbury Wash Way. There will be one lane of traffic in each direction on Mary Ann Cleveland Way during the work. Crews will work from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays. The project is expected to be completed in mid-July.

Contact: mwoodhouse@tucson.com or 573-4235. On Twitter: @murphywoodhouse

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