Bus ridership has plummeted in the year since funding problems led to the loss of free and frequent bus service in Ashland.




People took 291,000 bus rides in the 2006 fiscal year when rides were free and buses came every 15 minutes.




But they are projected to take just 93,250 rides in the 2007 fiscal year, which ends June 30. Bus fare is now 50 cents and buses come every 30 minutes.




During the first three quarters of the 2007 fiscal year, people averaged 23,312 rides per quarter in Ashland.




"We don't know who are the missing riders," city of Ashland Management Analyst Ann Seltzer told Ashland City Councilors earlier this week.




The city lacks demographic data about people who rode the bus before ridership numbers fell, she said.




Anecdotally, a Tidings reporter who visited with bus riders in 2006, when service was free and frequent, got mixed reactions. Some bus riders said free service was most important, while others said frequent service was their top priority.




However, bus ridership seems to be closely linked to bus fares.




In 2001, bus fare was $1 and people took 76,753 trips.




Bus fare was 25 cents in 2002, when people took 119,239 trips. This fiscal year's ridership projection of 93,250 trips with 50 cent fares is very close to the middle of those two previous ridership numbers.




The city of Ashland subsidized Rogue Valley Transportation District bus service so that fares could be free from 2003 through June 30, 2006.




But faced with a $1.2 million budget shortfall for this fiscal year, RVTD officials sought $535,000 to continue free and frequent service &

up from $290,000.




With only $290,000 budgeted for the bus service subsidy, Ashland City Councilors decided last summer that fares would increase to 50 cents and buses would come every 30 minutes.




RVTD raised bus fares to $2 elsewhere in the valley.




Earlier this week, the City Council voted to cap the city bus service subsidy at $210,000 for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1. That will leave the 50 cent fare and 30 minute service intact in Ashland.




The council approved setting aside another $2,000 for low-income youth passes and $1,000 for senior citizen passes.




City officials will talk with Ashland School District officials about schools giving out the youth passes, probably to students who already qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The Ashland Senior Program will likely give out senior passes.




Most council members also supported earmarking up to $77,000 to pay for a transportation consultant to look at the larger issue of bus service and transportation needs in Ashland.




Councilor Eric Navickas said the consultant could look at a variety of options for providing bus service in an efficient way that meets community needs.




The consultant could examine the use of smaller vehicles, route changes to maximize ridership, employee rider programs, a bus service independent of RVTD, transit needs of seniors and other issues, according to a staff memo to the council.




Senior citizens who live at the Mountain Meadows retirement community in Ashland fall outside RVTD's boundary for door-to-door Valley Lift service, which aids some seniors and disabled people.




Some Mountain Meadows residents have been going to nearby North Mountain Park to get rides on Valley Lift vans. The park is within RVTD's service boundary.




Councilor David Chapman was the only councilor to vote against issuing a request for proposals and bids from consultants to study transit issues.




"We seem to jump to consultants a lot," he said.




Staff writer can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.