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Were On The Bus: Now Expand Service

Wisconsin State Journal Editorial, January 15, 2003

We're On The Bus: Now Expand Service

Editorial

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Reprinted from Madison.com


Madison Metro, the beleaguered bus system that we love to hate, is finally reforming its prodigal ways.

After years of financial struggles and service changes, Madison Metro drew its highest ridership in 16 years in 2002, say reports this week. The system attracted more riders than it did before its controversial change to a transfer-station system in mid-1998 -- an estimated 11 million riders last year, a good half-million more than in 2001. The increase is certainly due in part to recent deals on bus passes for a major segment of Metro's market -- university students and staff. But Metro deserves credit for intensified efforts to attract riders, and its managers must keep looking for innovative ways to get people on the bus.

The numbers represent a much-needed campaign boost for Mayor Sue Bauman,who has tangled with former mayor -- and current mayoral challenger -- Paul Soglin about who ran Metro best. Metro ridership grew steadily during Soglin's most recent stint as mayor but overall has been higher under Bauman.

Bauman is right to suggest that now would be a good time to increase bus service rather than fares. Metro may add service in Southeast Madison this year, and in 2004, add service in the southwest and extend routes to Verona.

The next mayor and City Council, who will face tough budgeting times,should resist the temptation to squeeze out a few more dollars by raising fares on bus riders who are, generally speaking, poorer than people who drive cars. Such a self-defeating move surely would arrest these ridership gains and probably reduce overall revenues.

Metro is worth its relatively modest public investment: Bus service accounts for only about 4 percent of the city budget, and 80 percent of Metro's money comes from riders and the state and federal governments, not city taxpayers.

That said, Metro isn't on Easy Street yet, not by a long shot. Next, we'd suggest:

* Collecting better customer data to make sure routes and service levels best match people's evolving travel patterns and needs.

* Saving money by gradually switching to smaller, more fuel-efficient buses in the evenings and at other off-peak hours.

Most importantly, it's time to take the next big step: Converting Madison Metro from a mostly intracity shuttle service to a truly metropolitan transit system that would focus on moving commuters in and out of town, rather than shuttling a lot of big empty buses from one transfer point to another.

A regional transit authority will eventually be necessary, anyway, if Dane County pursues its commuter rail dream. And even if the trains never run, setting up bus routes to and from Madison's closest and largest suburbs opens up an untapped market and would spread Metro's budget over a larger tax base and larger share of riders. With the era of cheap gas on the wane,suburbanites should be more willing to leave their gas guzzlers in the garage instead of going bumper-to-bumper on the Beltline.

If Madison Metro continues to improve its numbers, we might just have toadmit the bus system has finally got a handle on its market. Let's keep the momentum rolling by taking the next logical step --remaking Madison Metro as a regional transit system.

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