The Oneida County administration committee this week approved and sent to the county board a resolution which would allow the Oneida-Vilas Transit Commission to borrow funds for four new buses, but not before county board chairman Dave Hintz repeatedly asked for ridership numbers.
The county has not received those numbers, at least to Hintz's satisfaction, but Hintz said the commission itself needs the numbers to know how many buses it actually needs in its fleet.
"One thing we've been asking about is metrics that will show bus capacity and usage rates," Hintz said as transit commission member Bob Mott and transit manager Roger Youngren were explaining the needs for new buses.
Hintz asked if progress was being made in compiling such metrics, and Youngren said tracking was ongoing.
"We track rides," Youngren said. "We introduced three new routes in 2019 and we are tracking those specific routes as well. We don't have exact metrics yet, but we are tracking those three new routes."
Youngren said two of those routes, linking the Woodruff/Lakeland area to Rhinelander and Eagle River, were getting good usage, though a smaller route linking Land O' Lakes, Conover, and Phelps with Eagle River was struggling.
Hintz again asked for hard numbers.
"I would again encourage you to provide the county some metrics on ridership," he said. "That would be very helpful."
Later, during a discussion about the sustainability of funding and whether the commission was building a reserve fund for future bus purchases, Hintz returned to ridership numbers once more, saying they were necessary for the commission to determine the size of its fleet.
"One issue, getting back to the metrics, it would really help to get appropriate metrics to help decide the needs - if you need 15 buses or 10 buses or 12 buses," he said. "Without those numbers it seems difficult to determine how many buses you need."
Mott said the commission was tracking numbers, but that it takes time to know how successful any particular route is.
"We have been told that when you establish different routes, it takes up to two years to determine if that is a good route or not," Mott said.
Hintz pressed on, saying the commission needs to understand the numbers from the start to be able to track progress.
"Right now you might be at 10 percent capacity, and you have a goal in six months to be at 20 percent, and 30 percent in a year, but if you don't know where you're at, it's hard to measure performance and your needs," he said.
The administration committee nonetheless moved the resolution to allow the transit commission to borrow funds to the county board.
The county would not be lending the transit commission any of the dollars, but the commission's charter requires county board approval for the commission to borrow the money from a bank.
In addition, the transit commission has been approved for grants to pay for the buses. However, the commission must pay for the buses first and then get reimbursed, hence the need for a short-term loan which will be paid off with the grant dollars.
Finally, the grants require a 20 percent local match. Each bus costs approximately $60,000, and so, for the four buses, the commission had to come up with $12,000 per bus, or $48,000 total, leaving about $192,000 to be borrowed.
Youngren told the administration committee the local match dollars had been secured, and both Mott and Youngren told the committee the buses were needed immediately.
"The concern is, of course, we have a number of older buses," Mott said. "Our fleet is aging. We replaced three of them last year, I think. One of our greater expenses, of course, is the care of buses because they are older, and they break down."
Safety is another reason, Mott said.
"It's like driving a car with 150,000 miles on it - things can happen that you can't see when you take it to the mechanic to look over," he said. "We want to have vehicles that are safe on the road."
Youngren did put numbers to the repair costs."In 2018 we were over-budget in maintenance and repair by $14,000," he said. "So far through the five months of 2019, we are $5,700 over-budget in maintenance and repair. We've got buses on the road - wheels falling off, bad axles. We replaced a total rear end of a bus late last year. We replaced another transmission."
Youngren said the life expectancy of a bus in the transportation arena is about 12 years, and a third of the transit commission's fleet is older than that.
"So the need is great for new buses not only to help keep our costs down, but for the safety aspect as well," he said.
Dianne Jacobson, the director of Oneida County's Aging and Disability Resource Center (ADRC), said the approval for four buses was a good sign for the commission.
"For years our department used to apply for this grant, and I can tell you that in many years we were declined because the DOT would say, 'There's too many buses up in your area.' And that was part of why we created the commission. We had all these buses, but they weren't being used in a unified way."
The approval for four buses means the state is impressed, Jacobson said.
"I can't tell you how much faith this means that the DOT has in transit, to say that they could have up to four buses," she said. "They don't have to say yes to that, and four is quite a tribute to transit."
Supervisor Robb Jensen asked about the long-term sustainability of the federal and state grants.
"I have no problem with the four buses because 33 percent of the fleet is at that point," he said. "Are you fairly confident as you go that you are going to have access to state and federal funding in 2020 and 2021 and 2022? What happens if that funding goes away? In your long-term plan, are you building up a reserve for bus purchases?"
Mott said the commission was, and Jacobson added that no grant funding can be guaranteed in the future.
"It's like any of our state or federal grants," she said. "You could say they are up in the air as well, but transportation, at the state Joint Finance Committee meeting last week, they have increases proposed, so at least into the next year, but it's like any funding I have, it's not guaranteed."
Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming "Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story" and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.
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