Lauderdale-By-The-Sea – Costs to keep this town’s community bus, the Pelican Hopper, on the road for another year will increase to $160,000 this year.
That’s an increase of $20,000 and amounts to an annual subsidy of $25 for every resident, Vice Mayor Mark Brown said recently. “And 95 percent of town residents don’t use it”
Brown said “This program is not working very well and we need to face up to that.” The service now “is expensive, inefficient, and it’s not working.”
The town has a contract with Limousines of South Florida [LSF], to operate the Pelican Hopper at $36.15 an hour. That contract has expired; the town is in a 90-day extension period.
Staff reviewed other LSF contracts and found Dania Beach has the best terms and rate on which to piggyback. The rate is $41.33 an hour, a 14 percent increase.
The Pelican Hopper’s annual budget was $139,000, but actual expense was $132,598. For 2017, the town budgeted $140,200.
The Pelican Hopper route extends from LBTS to the Broward County Library Reading Room on the Galt Ocean Mile and to Holy Cross Hospital. “We’re picking up additional riders that don’t live in our town who we’re subsidizing,” Brown noted.
One reason it doesn’t work, Brown said, it that it takes such a long time to make the circuit.
“I’ve stood out in the burning sun for 45 minutes waiting for it to show up,” Brown said. “It’s not convenient for most people.”
Brown suggested staff request information through the Broward League of Cities regarding how many other municipalities are providing community bus service. He said some are giving up the service because it’s just too expensive, and ridership numbers aren’t there to justify it.
Brown asked how much the county contributes, noting, “That money is at great risk right now. The money the county gets that they pass on to us comes from the federal government.”
Brown said Congress is leaning toward eliminating all subsidies for mass transit. “It won’t happen tomorrow, and it may not happen six months from now, but we have to be prepared for the possibility, if
not the likelihood.”
He called for an updated ridership survey and posed numerous questions. “Do they go on every street? How do they decide which streets to go up and down? How many riders are there? Who are they, and are they the same 50 people in town, or are there a lot of random riders getting on and off?”
Brown said the town might consider changing and shortening the routes, have central pickup points or create a service where residents needing a ride, call town hall for a pickup.
Some towns are taking advantage of ride-sharing services, he added.
“In view of increasing costs, we need to really get into this and be open-minded and look at what others are doing,” Brown said. “I don’t want to lose the Pelican Hopper. It’s wonderful that we are able to provide the service. But this whole program’s got to get fixed, or it will just get worse and worse the way things are going now. That’s my spiel.”
“I don’t think we want to just cut this off,” Mayor Scot Sasser said in response. “I want to do research and sit down and come up with a strategic plan on where it goes. Some do count on it to go to Holy Cross and other places.”
Town Manager Bud Bentley said the recommendation was to approve the contract, which includes two, one-year renewals. It can be terminated with 10 days notice.
“Ridership was up significantly in 2015 from the same period in 2014. Now it’s back down to 2014 levels, and we don’t know why,” said Tony Bryan, assistant town manager. “We don’t know why [riders are down]. We’re kind of scratching our heads.”
Bryan said staff has looked at bus rates in other municipalities. “What we are paying is absolutely among the lowest.”
He said the total amount the town pays doesn’t include the $50,000-plus subsidy the town receives from the county.
Commissioner Chris Vincent asked about the merits of the town providing the service on its own.
“It would be very expensive to buy the bus,” Bryan said.
“If the ridership isn’t there, I don’t know how innovative we can get,” Vincent said.
Commissioner Elliot Sokolow moved to execute the agreement which runs through April 17, 2017.
Brown seconded the motion, which passed unanimously.