Eau Claire bus system faces tough decisions

Wisconsin State Roundup

Published January 1, 1996  | January 1996 issue

Changing demographics, coupled with decreased financial support, raises serious questions about bus service in Eau Claire.

Like many cities its size, Eau Claire, population 58,000, has witnessed a continuing decline in ridership and an increasing amount of taxpayer support required to keep the bus service operating. Ridership in Eau Claire will have fallen from over 613,000 in 1986 to a projected 366,00 for 1996. At the same time, the taxpayer cost per passenger rose from 37 cents to $1.31 in the same period. Considering decreases in federal and state assistance, some hard decisions lie ahead for the city.

Eau Claire Transit Manager Ann Gullickson says the mission of the Transit Commission has changed from serving the general public to promoting transit services to transit-dependent people. In Eau Claire that generally means low-income riders across all ages and the elderly, who make up about 16 percent of the 2,000 daily riders. "Fewer and fewer people need public transit," Gullickson says. "That leaves a very dependent group riding the bus who need it even more because of the way development has occurred," she says. "A problem faced by all smaller communities is that growth and development are occurring on the perimeter." Transit lines are needed to get people to services, Gullickson adds.

A dozen or so mid-size Wisconsin cities, with populations of 50,000 to 70,000, offer bus service, Gullickson says, but some have dramatically increased fares. Eau Claire is in the middle of a four-year plan to raise fares—from 80 cents to 85 cents in 1996, and up to 90 cents in 1997. Other cities are looking at a cutback in service, something Gullickson says will likely occur over the long term in Eau Claire.

"Mass transit is critical to a community the size of Eau Claire," says Don Norrell, Eau Claire city manager. The issue, he says, "is the cost vs. what is perceived to be the benefit." While the state and federal governments will fund 52 percent of the transit budget of $1,794,000 in '96, the city will lose $100,000 in assistance overall, Norrell says.

The City Council and Transit Commission are expected to begin public discussion on the future of public transportation in Eau Claire early next year, Norrell says. He adds that with progressively fewer federal dollars, cities are unable to make up the funding gap through fare increases or service reductions. "If you cut routes, you also cut revenues."

Gullickson says with the dramatic change in federal funding the question has changed from "How do we get more riders and how do we best serve them?" to "How much can the city afford to spend to provide service?"

Kathy Cobb