Ten days after the long-planned merger of Kingston’s Citibus system with Ulster County Area Transit, county officials say ridership is up so far. But some users of the newly unified bus systems say the service changes have left them high and dry.
The merger between the two bus systems took effect on July 1. The service replaces the old Citibus routes with new ones developed by the Ulster County Transportation Council based on ridership surveys and other data. County officials say the new routes are designed to increase service in low-income areas and reduce wait times. The weekday “Red Route” runs from Kingston Plaza to the Ulster County Jail with an estimated travel time of 15 minutes each way. The weekday “Blue Route” runs down Broadway between the Plaza and Rondout Gardens. The “Yellow Route” runs between the Department of Social Services complex on Albany Avenue and the Birches apartment complex in Port Ewen. On Saturday, buses operate on a reduced schedule alternating between the Red and Blue routes while the Yellow Route alternates service between the Hudson Valley Mall and Kingston Point Park.
The new system also incorporates “Demand Response Zones” in low-ridership areas. Riders can use an app or call dispatch in advance to arrange a ride from a pre-approved address in one of the zones to a transit hub. The new UCAT app also offers real-time tracking of buses, estimated arrival times, route information and schedules. The newly combined UCAT/Citibus service will be free for all riders for the rest of the year.
The merger between the city’s century old bus system and the county’s transit agency grew out of a 2016 agreement hammered out Kingston Mayor Steve Noble and then-county executive Mike Hein to break an impasse over distribution of sales tax revenue. Under the terms of the deal, the city will pay Ulster County $112,500 for bus service this year and $225,000 annually until 2025, when the county will assume all costs associated with the service.
But, as one might expect in times of transition, not everyone is happy with the new way. At Kingston Plaza, Tara Porter said that she had used Citibus almost every day to run errands from her home in Port Ewen. Since the merger, she said, that service had been irregular. Porter said instead of regular bus service within walking distance of her home, she now has to call ahead for a pickup, something she described as inconvenient and unfair.
“It has definitely made it harder for me to get here,” said Porter. “It has made it harder for me to go about my business.”
Vincent Rua, one of three candidates challenging Noble for the mayor’s office in November, issued a statement blasting the administration for not doing enough to apprise riders of the service changes. Part of the merger plan included a public awareness campaign. But Rua said that more could have been done to prevent regular riders from being caught unawares by the new routes and schedules.
“This merger was approved four months ago,” Rua wrote in the statement. “But the city did nothing to make riders aware of the upcoming changes by posting signage at regular stops or handing out inexpensive flyers to bus riders 30 days prior to the switch.”
Noble, meanwhile said that he had received only a handful of emails critical of the service changes. More people, he said, had responded positively to merger which, he said, addressed a number of shortcomings with the old Citibus system, including the lack of a full-time dispatcher and longer wait times. Noble added that the new system was still in its earlier stages and some growing pains were to be expected.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if some adjustments are made going into 2020,” said Noble. “[The county] wants to be responsive because they want to grow ridership.”