Ottawa County’s general transit service expanded its evening hours earlier this year and riders appear to be taking advantage of it.
In January, the Ottawa County Transportation Agency expanded service hours to 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week. The move, in part, was to meet the needs of some of the working community that need the service to return home after a late shift as well as satisfy federal grant requirements, OCTA director Bill Lowe said.
The change in hours has run in parallel with the increase use of OCTA service. When OCTA began operating in 1997 there was no weekend service. Weekend service came along eventually. And, as of last year, hours were 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
The January numbers show that 45 people traveled during the expanded time slot from 8 -11 p.m. In February, that number grew to 116, Lowe said.
“We are not the end in itself,” Lowe added. “We’re a means to get people to the places they need to get to.”
OCTA carried nearly 95,000 passengers last year, according to the agency’s 2012 annual report. Its highest ridership numbers were recorded in 2011 with 99,339 passenger trips.
One-way fares are $3.50 per individual for the curb-to-curb, advanced registration, in-county trips. However, for additional fees, OCTA drivers also take passengers to sites in Wood, Erie, Huron and Sandusky counties. Discounted rates are offered to seniors and others with disabilities that are eligible for assistance.
An average day, Lowe said, consists of about 400 to 500 trips.
That puts drivers in contact with a good percentage of the community on a daily basis.
“In a small community like ours, everybody is somebody’s mother, sister or friend. We try to honor their independence. The focus is on serving the people,” Lowe explained.
The need for public transportation in rural communities - where destinations are anywhere from 20 to 40 miles away on average – is apparent, he said.
Transit systems in urban areas are based more on concepts like relieving traffic congestion. Rural transportation has another mission, he said.
“The face is about being compassionate to those who don’t have the opportunities,” Lowe said.
The bulk of passengers rely on OCTA because of mobility issues such as age, disabilities, poor eye sight and obesity rather than lack of transportation or inability to drive, Lowe explained.
The agency is funded several ways including federal, state and local assistance, agency service contracts and daily fares.
Some of the contracts provide rides for area residents enrolled in programs through county department such as Jobs and Family Services, the Board of Developmental Disabilities and Senior Resources. Other contracts provide maintenance service for vehicles. The maintenance plan began with the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office in 2003. Today, OCTA mechanics service more than 200 vehicles from 24 other agencies, the annual report shows. The large number allows them to order parts and supplies at discounted rates.
“The nice part of it is like sharing an apartment. When you live on your own, it’s expensive. When you bring in a roommate or two, then you save,” Lowe said.
OCTA’s two biggest expenses are labor and fuel.
OCTA currently owns a fleet of 25 vehicles and employs 31 people, including 23 drivers and two mechanics. In the past year, drivers racked up 786,156 service miles.
Green program continues
The OCTA mission includes a pledge to maintain green efforts.
“Being green in transit (service) is about less emissions,” Lowe said. “But in a rural area, we’re not at a point yet that were going to replace the personal vehicles.”
The green focus, then, he said turns to protecting the environment to the best of the agency’s ability.
The staff burns old motor oil to heat the buildings and relies on solar panels and underfloor geothermal heat to help control costs.
There are also a number of other environmentally-friendly projects in the works, beginning with a proposed wind turbine to produce electricity.
Other efforts being worked on are collecting rainwater for washing vehicles, planting wetland vegetation to filter runoff from driveways and parking lots and converting the fleet to natural gas and hybrids over the next five years, according to the annual report.