New rules result in fewer ridersAdherence to federal law causes drop for Palace Transit, increase for private taxis.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
Mitchell’s city-owned bus service has seen a sharp dip in ridership since last fall, with more than 1,000 fewer people using Palace Transit each month.
A federal regulation meant to prevent public transit companies from competing with privately owned firms caused the decline, according to Palace Transit officials.
“It has decreased numbers,” said Jessica Pickett, who was named the head of the city’s Senior Services Department in September, just in time to grapple with the change.
Under the new local policy, riders must request a ride the day before or earlier. If they want a ride the same day, they must call a private firm.
Bruce Lindholm, a program manager for the South Dakota Department of Transportation’s office of Air, Rail and Transit, said the federal law has been in place for more than 15 years. Mitchell did not have a private taxi service until recent years, Palace Transit Operations Supervisor Jolynn Hanson said, and did not have to worry about competing with one.
During a conference in June, she was advised the city needed to adhere to the law, Hanson said. It was decided the change would occur on July 1, 2012.
Palace Transit has existed for at least three decades, according to staffers. Its peak ridership is believed to have occurred in the 2006 fiscal year, with city fiscal years running from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30. During that period, Palace Transit had 118,840 paid riders.
Ridership dipped over the next few years, dropping to 95,499 during the 2010 fiscal year, and 96,953 in 2011, followed by 97,162 during the 2012 fiscal year.
That slight increase has been reversed by the new policy. Hanson said the decline was noticeable shortly after the new fiscal year began.
Ridership dropped from 8,691 in November 2011 to 7,497 in November 2012. That was a drop of 1,194 riders, and it set a pattern that has continued.
The trend continued in the next three months, with numbers falling from 8,662 in December 2011 to 7,216 in December 2012, and from 8,751 in January 2012 to 7,452 in January 2013.
This last month saw ridership drop below 7,000, as 6,929 people rode Palace Transit in February, down from 8,367 in February 2012. At this pace, the city service will have more than 15,000 fewer riders this fiscal year compared to last.
The deadline to call Palace Transit at (605) 995-8440 to arrange a ride is 4 p.m. the day before riders want a ride. The city charges $2.50 for a one-way trip and $3 for a round trip.
Because callers must schedule their ride at least a day in advance, and the dispatcher does not work weekends, that means they have to call by Friday to schedule a ride for Monday.
Pickett said that doesn’t mean Monday is always the slowest day of the week. On a recent week, Thursday had the fewest riders.
“There’s no normal,” Hanson said. “Every day’s different, and that’s what we like.”
Tami Workman, of Mitchell, has been driving for Palace Transit for four years and said she has noticed a major drop in riders since the change of policy.
“We haven’t seen near the number of riders now as we used to have,” Workman said. “It can get kind of slow at times.”
She said the drivers use the time when no riders are scheduled to clean both the outside and inside of the bus.
“It’s called downtime for us, but there is still plenty of things to do, so we stay busy,” Workman said.
Two of the riders on the bus Thursday afternoon, Dennis Determan and Lori Layman, both said the change hasn’t been hard for them to adjust to. They ride the bus almost every day, and know they need to call ahead for rides.
In the wake of the rule change and the reduced number of riders, Palace Transit has cut its hours, ending at 8 p.m. instead of 10 p.m. It begins its day at 5:30 a.m.
“The buses we have are full,” Pickett said.
In addition to the reduction in hours, the city is not filling positions that become vacant. Right now there are six full-time and six part-time drivers. Palace Transit also employs Hanson, a dispatcher, and a bookkeeper. The service has 12 buses and three vans.
Palace Transit is one of three services provided by the Senior Services Department.
The others are the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), and senior nutrition. The department’s 2013 budget is $1.39 million, with Palace Transit taking the largest cut of that with $878,978.
Most of the transit’s service’s budget — 80 percent — comes from a federal grant, Pickett said.
Private services benefit
The two privately owned taxi companies in Mitchell have reported a boost in ridership since Palace Transit was forced to make its changes.
Anita and Art Streetman have operated EZ Ride for four years. Anita Streetman said the change has helped them, but that’s not all good news, in her opinion.
“I think it’s kind of hard on the elderly, quite frankly,” she said. “They depend on the transit system.
“So it is has benefited us, but I feel bad for them. I have a father who’s 85, not here in town, but I know what it’s like. They are on limited incomes. But it is good for our business.”
EZ Ride charges $9 for a round-trip ride in Mitchell, she said. Punch cards make it more affordable. EZ Ride sells a ticket that offers 14 rides for $55.
“A lot of them are doing that,” she said. “We are selling a lot of punch cards.”
A Becky’s Vans employee said he has seen an uptick in riders as well since the Palace Transit change.
“Yeah, we’ve been picking up a few of them,” said driver Tom Gates.
Pickett said the city-owned service will adapt. “We’re trying to brainstorm ways to increase ridership,” she said. “I think as soon as the public gets used to it, that will increase our numbers. We have some new ideas. There will be some changes coming along.”
— The Daily Republic’s Chris Huber contributed to this report.