Ridership and hours of local para-transit and senior bus service could be reduced by Sept. 1.
Bis-Man Transit Director Roy Rickert said a plan drafted for Bis-Man Transit and Capital Area Transit would replace 24-hour bus service for people with disabilities with a schedule running from early morning to early evening: 5:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday. Healthy seniors ages 60 and older would no longer automatically qualify for the para-transit service unless they meet Americans with Disabilities Act or health criteria.
The proposed plan also downsizes the CAT fixed bus system, cutting some of its northeast fringe routes and reducing the number of routes from 12 to six.
The CAT routes would run 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday. Extended service will be added from 7 p.m. to midnight Monday through Saturday and from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday for a fee of $5.
"It could save $1 million,” Rickert said, adding that the proposed changes were prompted by a loss of $350,000 in federal funding and $150,000 from state budget cuts.
And the para-transit route is expensive. Both systems provided 283,263 rides, and para-transit rides made up more than half.
"For a town this size, we should be doing 40,000 to 50,000 rides on para-transit. We're doing 160,000," said Rickert.
About 13,000 riders are signed up for the para-transit bus, though not all who sign up use it. The suggested changes come from a study done on the system in 2012, Rickert said.
Renee Kipp, executive director for Burleigh County Senior Services, an agency that contributes to the bus service, voiced doubts about the revamped plan: "I have a lot of concerns.”
Lyle Halvorson, interim state director for AARP North Dakota, said he prefers a phased approach to help users modify their use of the transit. He said the organization is reviewing the changes for the impact on residents who rely on the para-transit service.
"Reliable transportation is a lifeline for older residents. We want to ensure the programs are available for those who need it. We may leave vulnerable residents without service," he said.
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Para-transit service will continue to Mandan and Lincoln, and fixed bus route service will continue to Mandan.
"I have concerns about changes in the paratransit eligibility. ... I don't think it's clear other than they are ADA-compliant,” Commissioner Josh Askvig said. "I am concerned about 24/7 service going to after-hours and extended service. I am less concerned about how it affects ridership (than) the fees doubling to $5."
Askvig also questions narrowing the defined borders for service from 2 miles outside town to three-quarters of a mile away from town, and how the new plan has West River Transit rural bus service overlap the gap to reach Bismarck-Mandan.
Rickert notes that although the metro area is growing, general ridership has been stagnant for five years. Despite northeast Bismarck being one of the fastest-growing areas, ridership there is marginal, he said -- perhaps two riders an hour. The new fixed route will no longer stop in the areas of the new northeast Dan's, but the fixed route will still pick up riders from the north Walmart.
The change is meant to improve overall service to riders, Rickert said.
"It will bring efficiency, productivity and a higher level of service for the passengers,” he said. “On the fixed route, they are going to get an easier schedule to work with. The buses will stay on route the entire day.”
"(Rickert) is looking for ways to make the service more efficient, and I look forward to the discussion at the table," said Bismarck Mayor Mike Seminary. "He has to base his decisions on what our community needs today. His job is make decisions on what is best for our ridership. I trust his judgment."
One area may see an increase in service: University of Mary. Tim Seaworth, vice president for student affairs, said regular service is something students and staff have been requesting.
"We've attracted students from Minnesota and beyond who are used to public transportation. We have more students than 10 years ago that don't have cars. They've been wanting bus service. We have students who work in town. … They are excited about the possibility of the bus coming out here," Seaworth said.
The proposal will be presented to the Bismarck City Commission for consideration at 5:15 p.m. Tuesday.
A commission decision is expected in July, though Askvig questions whether that will allow enough time to educate the public and transition those using para-transit.