“The fact is, most of our county buses right now run on state roads. Imagine if that wasn’t the county’s responsibility, because the state has so much more money than we do. So if the state took over the Route 28 bussing, or at least funding it, we could still tell them where it needs to go. Because we live in the community, we know where the people are, right? So they give us a 28 bus, they give us a 209 bus and a 9W bus and a 32 Bus. You’re covering most of the current bus routes, especially the long-distance ones. And then we can concentrate on our county routes that need service, which barely have any right now. Why shouldn’t the state should offer a public transit option on its state highways as part of its commitment to have state highways?”
— Phil Erner, District 6 Ulster County Legislator
Phil Erner’s plan to remake the Ulster County Area Transit (UCAT) into a fareless public transit system inched closer to reality when the Ulster County legislator’s resolution was reopened for discussion at the July 11 Monday night meeting of the Public Works, Capitol Projects and Transportation Committee.
“This is something that has been a leading request of transit riders in the county that I’ve spoken with over the past three plus years,” says Erner, who was also a co-founder of the advocacy group, Friends of Kingston Public Transit Riders before his election to the legislature. “It’s not a lot of money the county would need to commit, it’s something like one tenth of one percent of the budget, if we were paying for it at the current or most recent pre-pandemic service level.”
As it stands, the Ulster County Budget released for the year 2022 anticipates spending of $351.1 million. Resolution 298 places the mean annual operating expense for UCAT at just under $6.4 million between 2015 and 2020 while pegging the total revenue generated by UCAT fares during the same period at $2,052,000. Currently, the budget shortfall for funding the fleet of busses maintained by the Ulster County Area Transit is significantly underwritten by the Federal Transit Authority as well as State Operating Aid.
“Essentially we get $3 dollars for every dollar that we spend,” explained Deputy County Executive Christopher Kelly. “If we have $300,000 or $350,000 in fares, the State is going to give us about a million dollars in operating aid assistance. So that’s what we need to make sure remains whole.”
Characterizing the revenue losses expected from the adoption of the resolution as ‘not prohibitively expensive,’ Kelly’s main concerns were in maintaining forward momentum for a variety of projects already coming down the pipeline. “We’re trying to green the fleet,” said Kelly. “We’re trying to replace aging infrastructure. We have to build a new bus garage. All of [those plans] have to stay intact, whether we collect the fares or not.”
The idea of a free ride available to all residents of Ulster County at all times does not need to be controversial according to Erner. Furthermore, it need not be a free for all. A provision included in the resolution which would leave fare boxes in place, giving riders the option to contribute what they can afford, was also popular among the committee members. District 22 Legislator, Democrat Kathy Nolan brought up the model, known as ‘pay it forward,’ as something which could run side by side with the fareless intent of the resolution.
“I gotta laugh,” joked Republican Dean Fabiano, Legislator for the towns of Saugerties and Ulster. “I can’t believe that I’m going to agree with Legislator Nolan on two resolutions in a row! But I do agree with her if [someone] gets on the bus, and they want to pay, I mean, you know, somebody that’s doing okay in life and don’t want to, you know, take advantage, if they want to pay, they should be able to pay to help towards the cause. I mean, if I had to get on one of those busses, and the option was there [not to pay], I think for 50 cents or $1 that it would cost me I would definitely be willing to pay.”
Currently the fare for riding a bus within Ulster County is $1.50 and rises to $2 when travelling outside county lines on the UCAT. While transfers are currently available to stretch out the fare’s distance, the effect of opening up the entire service area of the UCAT busses regardless of purchasing power is unknown.
“We’ve had a declining ridership over the last few years,” noted Deputy Executive Kelly, in a nod to the effects of the pandemic. “What is the impact of a free transit system on a county? We don’t know the answer to that because we haven’t done it yet. So the risk becomes over time is that we’re successful, very, very successful, then it’s going to be that much more expensive.”
Even so, real world object lessons in what is possible are proliferating. The city of Boston currently has select bus lines running fare free while the entire state of Connecticut has suspended bus fares until December 1. Deputy Executive Kelly pointed towards Dayton, Ohio’s free weekend bus ride program and the ‘zero fare transit’ model available day in and day out in Kansas City, Missouri.
“Kansas City has about an eight and a half million dollar goal that they fill on the fare sides,” said Kelly. “$4 million is coming from private foundations, and four and a half is coming from the city. So they’re doing a mix of both of those. Obviously, their ridership is significantly higher but it makes a lot of sense in that is what could lead to…a more kind of recession-in hard-times-resilient type of system if we were to continue to collect something. I do think that a pilot for 18 months, two years, whatever seems to be everybody’s purview. I think that would be prudent. And then it’s really a study, it’s a study of an impact of free transit on a county like ours, and we don’t know the outcome.”
Kelly estimated an August deadline when the budget team will have worked out the fiscal requirements for the completion of the UCAT related projects and the plan for installing automated passenger counters has been workshopped to swap out fare amounts as the metric against which matching funding from the state is measured.
As the discussion wrapped up, Laura Petit, Chair of the Committee and Legislator for the Town of Esopus noted that because the resolution did not yet contain all of the components of the committee’s discussion, and that no action would be taken until the resolution could be presented again with the updated language.
When the resolution makes it out of this committee around August, which there is every indication among the committee members that it will, the ways and means committee will be waiting. That deliberative body will have to weigh in before letting the resolution arrive for a vote before the full legislature.
“Transit is a topic that I’ve talked about probably with more of my fellow legislators than any other at this point,” says Erner. “I’ve gone from concerned to optimistic. For people who have a choice, whether or not to take transit, certainly making it cheaper upfront, I would think would be more attractive. And we want more people taking transit. And state policy wants more people taking transit. We need to get people around with consumption of fewer resources ultimately. More people on busses means fewer people in cars, means less traffic and pollution. Not only is it the environmentally just thing to do but I also want to make the point, I want to make clear, that it’s the public’s will. For those who need this the most that this be county policy. We’re going to have free transit.”
Erner has been made head of the transit subcommittee.