OCEAN CITY – The public put in their “two cents” to the Mayor and City Council on Monday concerning potential changes in the Ocean City bus service, and their outcry was simple: changing it makes no sense.
Almost a dozen Ocean City residents, bus drivers and riders took turns at this week’s public hearing stepping to the microphone at City Hall to slam the idea of altering the number of buses running during the winter months (January-March) from the current schedule of three buses per shift.
Public Works Director Hal Adkins brought the proposal before the council in November pitching the idea to save operational costs by trimming the bus schedule on the “graveyard” shift (10 p.m.-6 a.m.), offering up ideas of cutting it back to two, one or even eliminating the graveyard shift altogether on Sunday-Thursday.
“I think cutting back from three buses to two buses would be a mistake. If you miss that bus, you have to wait almost an hour in the cold, said Ocean City resident Patrick McKenna, “and nobody wants to do that. Some people rely on that bus to get to and from work.”
Jeff Jankowski, another resident and advocate of the current bus system, said that Ocean City has always provided an “outstanding and reliable bus service that people depend on” but added another need for having a bus in service on the graveyard shift.
“Some visitors and residents used the bus when they have a bit too much fun, and they need this service to get home safely. Every drunk driver kept off the road is an accident obverted and is beyond any financial measure,” Jankowski said.
According to Adkins, the current bus schedule offers three buses 24 hours a day patrolling up and down Coastal Highway, keeping a 30-minute “headway.”
“As of Nov. 1, we trimmed the service from four buses to three buses in each of the three shifts, and we have kept the 30-minute headway and saved a net amount of $78,000. Cutting the service to 2, 2, and 1 would save us a net amount of $120,000,” Adkins said.
Simply put, one of the ideas on the proverbial table on Monday night was to cut the first and second shifts (covering 6 a.m.-10 p.m.) from three buses to two buses and to remove two buses from the graveyard shift and potentially replace the 35-foot bus with a smaller mode of transportation, such as the ADA vans, for the graveyard shift.
Councilman Jim Hall agreed with some residents who thought that eliminating the graveyard bus, even from Sunday-Thursday, would be a bad idea.
“It’s a work town and a play town, and the bus is a big part of the backbone of our town. We need a bus on that road all night long,” he said.
According to an hour-by-hour study done by the Transportation Department, the graveyard bus is boarded approximately 4,500 times per month in the winter time, perhaps showing that the service is still needed on some level.
“If the numbers are true, and I am confident they are,” said Councilman Doug Cymek, “it doesn’t warrant a change. The testimony is clear we need three buses.”
Another large talking point during the public hearing was the issue that cutting the service in any capacity would inhibit the ability of the bus drivers to take their allotted breaks during their shift.
Tom Morehead, an Ocean City bus driver who has even driven the ADA vans that were proposed to be the replacement vehicles used on the graveyard shift, said he knew about the concerns facing drivers personally as he drove the graveyard shift bus for eight years.
“Cutting it back to two drivers is unsafe, and the main concern should be safety,” he said. “We have a lot of older drivers and they need to take bathroom breaks more often especially riding around on a bumpy bus on a bumpy seat. Drivers can get in almost an hypnotic state when driving on the road for eight hours, and we don’t want that to happen.”
Ray Dimmer, another bus driver for the town of Ocean City, disagreed with Adkins’ claim that two buses would still be able to achieve a 30- minute headway that riders have come to rely on.
“Two buses would not work. Driving at 25 mph and dealing with usual delays with people getting on and off the bus, it’s difficult to keep the 30 minutes, and if people get to work late, they complain to us. To maintain it correctly, I think three buses work, and as the old saying goes, if it’s not broke why fix it,” said Dimmer.
Russell Taylor, whose wife works as a bus driver on the graveyard shift, called the potential shift changes “ridiculous” and said, “we are forgetting the bus drivers here, how would you like to work eight hours which is the equivalent of driving from here halfway to Florida without a bathroom break?”
Adkins addressed these comments, saying, “it was never our intention to ever deny breaks to any of our drivers and they should have realized that.”
In the end, Adkins said he was not surprised that the council chose to decide on the issue at a later date and Mayor Rick Meehan capped off the hearing by assuring the public that, “the bus will run as usual with three buses running until a decision is made at a later date.”
As council faces the task of looking at every line item of the town’s budget in great detail, public outcry may not necessarily outweigh the necessity to cut costs as mirrored by Joe Hall’s comments.
“I understand employee rights and needs but we need to maximize our efforts and explore ways not to waste money with the services we provide,” Joe Hall said. “We do want a reliable bus service, but we have to look at everything we provide the town this year.”