Bus wars: The Back and forth on BxM4C
Expect a lot of people to come out to save the Manhattan express bus. The BxM4C line now on the chopping block has many supporters.
The hearing starts just about now, and goes until 9 p.m. tonight with a break from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. (It’s at the Westchester County Center on Central Avenue and Tarrytown Road in White Plains, right by the Bronx River Parkway.)
It’s that evening session where we’ll see a lot of people coming out. Last week, many of them gathered at the Will Library in Yonkers. Greenburgh Supervisor Paul Feiner, who lobbied for the bus route when it began in the early 1980s and has become one if its most vocal supporters, told me 250 to 300 people came to that rally. Another organizer told me it was about 400.
Many of them will likely come out tonight.
They’ll have lots of ideas. Raise the fare from $5.50 a ride if it will save the route. Run it only on rush hours.
And they’ll have many arguments in favor, too. The route’s benefit to the county reaches beyong the route itself. It was started as an alternative to train commuting when the rail system, by many accounts, was abysmal. But it put down roots. Some people say they bought their homes in Yonkers because it was close to the route.
I’ve ridden the bus a couple of times, and, even though people complained a couple of years ago when the county bought smaller buses for it, I found the ride to be a pleasant way to get into the city. Metro-North Railroad riders give high ratings to that service, but an above-the-ground ride straight to 23rd St., with many stops along the way is an asset. If I lived closer to the route, I’d take the route that leaves you a few blocks from Union Square than Metro-North. You get out 19 blocks closer to Chinatown, the South Street Seaport, Little Italy and the villages — East, West and just “the Village” — than the ride to Grand Central Terminal.
In yesterday’s Journal News, Transportation Commissioner Larry Salley outlined the reasons it was chosen for cutting when money got tight here as it is everywhere. Put simply, he said, “The county can’t provide services it can’t pay for.”
It’s not an easy route to run, by reading Salley’s explanation. Its 800 daily riders is drastically lower than other lines, and down significantly from what it was in the past. People may say they’ll accept a higher fare, but Salley says it would almost have to be more than doubled, to $11.25, to pay for itself. And that’s only assuming everybody continued to ride it. If ridership dropped, as it does on transit systems when fares go up, the fare would have to be raised higher still to recapture the loss. You can see the cycle that results.
Now, no system pays for itself, so looking at a fare that would completely recapture the loss is asking it to do more than other lines. But the bottom line, according to Department of Transportation numbers, is that cutting the route would save $2.6 million.
So here’s some more information on the issue. First, I’ll copy a letter from Feiner to supporters of the BxM4C, then Salley’s letter on the reasons behind targeting it.
Here’s Feiner’s letter:
SAVE THE BUS PUBLIC HEARING WED AT THE COUNTY CENTER 2-5, 7-9
Please take the time out of your schedule on Wednesday to speak at a public hearing at the Westchester County Center. The county is considering the possibility of eliminating the Westchester-NY express bus route. Other routes may also see funding eliminated.
The hearing will be held Wednesday, April 14th from 2-5 and from 7-9 at the Westchester County Center. You will have three minutes per person to speak. To accomodate residents who enjoy attending Greenburgh Town Board meetings – theTown Board meeting will start a half hour late–at 8 PM so you can testify at the beginning of the public hearing and then come to our Town Board meeting.
WHY IS THIS ROUTE IMPORTANT TO GREENBURGH?
1) Central Ave property values will decline if the route is discontinued. Many residents purchased their homes because of the proximity to the bus stops.
2) Area train station parking lots may not be able to accomodate the additional parking. Commuters who currently live on or near Central Ave don’t need a car to get to work. If the route is eliminated that will change –more parking garages/spots will have to be built———-costing the taxpayers many millions of dollars. PENNY WISE, POUND FOOLISH.
3) Our roads will be more congested if public transportation is eliminated. Those who ride the bus will take their cars during rush hour to train stations, causing additional traffic congestion.
4) Some area train stations do not have elevators (example: Hartsdale). These stations are not very accessible to the disabled. The bus is easier to use by the disabled and elderly.
5) On 9-11 many commuters appreciated the convenience of the commuter bus and used the bus to escape from the city. In the event of another emergency it’s nice to know that we don’t have to depend on the trains to get in and out of the city.
6) Some Central Ave merchants will see a decline in business if shoppers who use the bus discontinue giving our local shops their business. That means reduced sales tax revenue to the county and local communities –and more property taxes. Yonkers Raceway will also be hurt if the route is eliminated.
7) Rail service may decline –the lack of competition could cause Metro North to look the other way when they have problems. In 1982 I started Westchester’s first express bus to NYC. The conditions on the train were horrible: air conditioning/heating problems, commuters packed like sardines, trains getting stuck inside the tunnel for long periods of time, frequent delays and trains breaking down. The initiation of the commuter bus led to improvements in the rail–thanks to competition. Rail service benefits when Metro North realizes that we have other alternatives.
8) If businesses go under because they are losing shoppers, Central Ave property owners may file tax certiorari’s–costing taxpayers even more money.
9) Some commuters (without cars) will have a much more difficult time getting to work –and may lose their jobs if the bus route is eliminated.
These are just a few reasons why this important route should be saved. Please attend the hearing Wednesday.
Greenburgh Town Supervisor
And now here’s Salley’s:
Westchester has little choice but to eliminate BxM4C route
In advance of the public hearing Wednesday, I would like to provide the financial context around the proposal to eliminate the BxM4C express bus route to Manhattan.
The Bee-Line Bus Service is one of Westchester’s great success stories and a critical component of economic growth for the county and region. In just the last five years, the Bee-Line has added 4 million riders, bringing its annual total to 32 million and making it one of the 50 busiest mass transit systems in North America.
On the negative side, funding for the Bee-Line has steadily decreased in recent years. To keep the Bee-Line operating at 2009 levels would cost $98 million. Unfortunately, only $94.4 million was budgeted for 2010, which reflected cuts of $3.6 million in appropriations by the Spano administration ($1.9 million) and the Westchester County Board of Legislators ($1.7 million).
To make up the difference, the county Department of Transportation has been forced to look at the elimination of routes. It is simple economics as well as the law. The county can’t provide service it can’t pay for.
To find savings, the Department of Transportation conducted an analysis of the entire system. Costs, ridership levels, passenger income, transportation alternatives, and many other metrics were examined. The overall goal was threefold: compensate for the revenue shortfall, minimize the impact on riders, and protect the long-term viability of the system for all passengers.
Based on the analysis, several routes in Northern Westchester were eliminated in February. Several routes in central Westchester are now slated for elimination as well.
Most of the public opposition has centered on the elimination of the BxM4C express route to Manhattan, so let’s focus more closely on the rationale behind its selection.
• Ridership is down by almost half since 1995. Today, the line serves about 800 people a day. While that number is not insignificant, it translates into one of the poorest performing routes in the system, with BxM4C buses carrying an average of 6 passengers an hour compared to 37 passengers an hour system-wide.
• The cost savings are significant. Eliminating the route saves $2.6 million a year. One of the reasons for the high cost is because it is a “deadhead” route. After passengers are discharged in the morning, the bus returns to Westchester virtually empty. The same is true in reverse in the afternoon. Eliminating midday and weekend service has been suggested, but savings would be minimal — only $600,000.
• There are alternatives. In a 2007 survey conducted by the Transportation Department, 95 percent of BxM4C passengers said other options were available to them if the route was eliminated. The options included connecting to other express buses or subway lines in the Bronx or taking Metro-North trains. While doing so may add time, be less convenient or cost more money in some cases, viable alternatives exist.
• Almost all passengers use the BxM4C as a stand alone route. Therefore, its elimination would not disrupt the commutes of other passengers.
Some passengers have said that they would be willing to pay more to keep the route. To keep the BxM4C in service for the remainder of the year, fares would have to be raised to $11.25 each way, up from the current $5.50. Raising the fare to such a level would decrease ridership, conservatively estimated at 20 percent, which would then require additional fare hikes.
Even if the fare were raised to $11.25, such a fix would only be a stop-gap. In 2011, the Bee-Line is looking at more red ink. The county is facing an overall deficit of about $166 million. Contributing to the deficit is an additional loss of $3.6 million in state transportation aid. If the BxM4C is spared this year, it will simply become a prime candidate for elimination next year.
So the fundamental question comes down to this: If the BxM4C route is saved, what other route or routes should be cut instead?
The Department of Transportation is certainly open to suggestions. But the bottom line is that the savings have to come from somewhere.
As much as we hate the proposals we have offered — and we do — they are the only realistic proposals on the table at this time that help close the budget shortfall, minimize passenger inconvenience and preserve the viability of the overall system.
The writer is Westchester County transportation commissioner.