Three months after the first bus got rolling, ridership on the city's new transit system continues to grow.
The number of bus riders has risen from an average of 193 a day during December to 424 in March, with more than 26,000 rides given during the first quarter of operation. Officials hope to triple that average over time, but say they're pleased with the start.
"I think in a few years we'll have a system that moves quite a few people," said Karin Rexroad, the city's transit director, last month.
But for now, she said, "it's not making money and we don't have full ridership."
After this year's startup costs are out of the way, Rexroad said, the bus system will require a $2.5 million average budget. The city levies three mills to support the system, raising about $1.6 million. The rest comes from state and federal subsidies. The buses, so far, are generating about $7,000 a month in revenue.
Mayor Jim Henry said the city will always have to subsidize the bus system. "The city is providing a service," he said. "We're in it for the long haul."
Other commissioners, and commission candidates, have echoed the sentiment. Henry said when he rode the bus last month, people seemed "very appreciative of the service."
He said, "One woman said, 'I hope it never stops. I use it every day to get to work.'"
"What I'm hearing from people who are using it is, 'I had no alternative. This is a godsend,'" Rexroad said. "We're getting people to employment, we're getting people to job interviews we're helping people who didn't have these options before."
Not that the system can't stand some tweaking, she said. The No. 5 route between 27th and Wakarusa and East Hills Business Park is the least-traveled, with 2,673 riders during the first quarter, about half of what the best routes receive.
Rexroad said officials are considering shortening the route, as well as taking one of its two buses away to provide much-requested north-south service along Kasold Drive.
"We will have a public hearing for anything we change," she said.
Other changes are in store. Bigger, permanent buses will go online this fall. And shelters will be built to shield passengers from the elements while they wait for a ride. Rexroad said her department has 12 sites in mind as permanent stops to perhaps replace the flag-down system now in use.
Officials have already approved 10-punch ride tickets, a monthly pass system (like a season ticket) to be started this month or May and allowed police officers to ride for free to enhance security.
Bus fare without a pass is 50 cents per ride.
Rexroad said the process of educating potential riders will continue for some time.
"For the people who are using it, they're really learning to make it work for them," she said. "For other people who view it as an option, instead of a necessity, there's still questions."