‘Drastic drop’ in ridership raises county bus questions

Decreasing fares, rising costs prompt scrutiny but officials see value in service

An Ozaukee Express bus driver and a passenger prepared to depart from the north side of Port Washington Monday afternoon. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
DAN BENSON
Ozaukee Press staff

Ridership on the Ozaukee County Express commuter bus service has dropped by a third since 2010 while after-fare costs have risen 75% in that same time span, county supervisors were told last week.

That led county Transit Supt. Jason Wittek to muse “what the tipping point is” for continuing to offer the service.

According to figures Wittek presented to the county Public Works Committee, Express bus ridership in 2018 was 63,167, down from 92,837 in 2010 and a high of 93,576 in 2012.

Meanwhile, the net cost — after subtracting the fares paid by riders — of providing the service has risen 158%, from $8.04 per trip in 2010 to $20.73 in 2018.

That’s a total net cost of more than $1.3 million per year, up 75% from $746,460 in 2010. 

The vast majority of money to cover that cost comes from state and federal grants, Wittek said. The county subsidized the service with $193,000 from the tax levy in 2018. 

As a budget line item, the Express service is seen within the overall transit program, which includes the shared-ride taxi. 

Operating costs for the taxi have been dropping thanks mainly to lower or stable gas prices and the increased use of higher-mileage hybrid cars.

Those savings have helped offset some of the rising costs for the Express bus, Wittek said.

“What’s become alarming is the drastic drop in ridership,” he said.

“There was a comfort level when (the cost per ride) was $8 to $10, but now I don’t know what the tipping point is for the county,” Wittek told supervisors.

In an interview, Wittek said his “tipping point” comment “was theoretical to get discussion started on whether we stay in the bus service business. At what point is it not viable?”

Supervisor Don Korinek, chairman of the Public Works Committee, said he took Wittek’s “tipping point” comment to mean that the time may have come to eliminate more stops. 

“We’ve talked about it over the last year about eliminating another bus stop,” particularly at the park-and-ride lot at highways 33 and V in the Town of Grafton, Korinek said.

The county already eliminated one route this year that stops at Grafton Commons in the Village of Grafton.

But Wittek said eliminating a stop wouldn’t produce much cost savings.

“The cost is mainly for the driver,” Wittek said. 

Raising fares also may not be practical, he said, since many Ozaukee Express riders transfer to Milwaukee County Transit buses and purchase passes from MCTS that the Ozaukee Express honors.

Wittek said the drop in ridership  is due primarily to an aging Ozaukee County population and that millenials are choosing to live in urban areas like Milwaukee. In addition, car ownership is at an all-time high and gas prices are relatively low. 

He said the Express service draws about 124 individuals a day taking a two-way trip.

“Probably  in our heyday we had around 175 people a day,” Wittek said.

Despite the severe drop in ridership, Korinek said there is still a need for the service.

“There’s a certain value for people who don’t have the ability to have a car or who need that system in place,” he said.

Supervisor Dan Becker, who also sits on the committee, agreed.

“That still a pretty substantial number” of people taking the bus, he said. 

“I think we gotta keep watching it, studying it and maybe start tossing out some alternatives, but right now I think we keep it going.” Becker said. “Maybe eliminate some stops and maybe that will save some money.”

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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