Watertown councilman says city should explore CitiBus run by transit authority

Travelers ready to embark a CitiBus at the downtown Terminal.

Travelers ready to embark a CitiBus at the downtown Terminal. Watertown Daily Times file photo.

City Councilman Mark C. Walczyk wants the city to look into whether the CitiBus public bus system should be run by a transportation authority.

In the past month, Councilman Walczyk has mentioned the issue on at least two occasions, most recently at a City Council meeting in February.

He subsequently told The Times that he doesn’t know much about transit authorities, but it’s something that the city should explore.

“We may be able to save money and provide better service to the riders,” he said.

Transportation authorities are either administrated by a governmental agency or corporation and are typically revenue-producing entities. Like most public systems, the publicly funded CitiBus system loses money every year.

His interest comes at a time when the city has been talking about expanding a bus route farther out to retailers on outer Arsenal Street in the town of Watertown. Last summer, riders signed a petition to extend the route from the Salmon Run Mall.

Last fall, CitiBus also popped up as a campaign issue when then-candidate Cody J. Horbacz, an ardent supporter, proposed expanding its five-bus route and extending its hours.

And now Councilman Walczyk said he would like to learn more about how Centro, a bus service in Onondaga County that’s operated by a transportation authority, took over bus systems in Rome and Utica several years ago. He would like to find out if that arrangement could work here.

Public Works Superintendent Eugene P. Hayes, who oversees the bus system, is putting together a seven-year plan to upgrade CitiBus and purchase a new fleet of buses.

Under a transit authority, CitiBus would have to be expanded into a regional system with routes going out to several surrounding communities, Mr. Hayes said. It also would have to go through a lengthy approval process through the state.

He also stressed that CitiBus would have to be profitable for Centro to get involved.

About 18 months ago, Mr. Hayes talked briefly with Centro officials about the prospects but it was at a time when some major changes were occurring in the system, he said, so it was not pursued.

“It was at a meet and greet,” Mr. Hayes said.

In 2014, CitiBus was placed under the auspices of the Federal Transportation Administration, instead of the state Department of Transportation. That change was prompted by the city becoming a Metropolitan Planning Organization, as designated by population statistics under the U.S. Census Bureau.

The topic of a transportation authority came up during the 2014-15 budget process when City Manager Sharon A. Addison mentioned it in her proposed budget as a way to save money that year. Just a line in her budget message that year, there was no council support and it didn’t gain any traction.

With the makeup of City Council changed as the result of last fall’s election, it might be time to bring up the subject again, she said. She intends to discuss it after her 2016-17 proposed budget is released.

The fixed-route CitiBus system runs Mondays through Saturdays with five aging 30-passenger buses that snake their way through mostly major roads in the city and out to the Salmon Run Mall.

During the 2014-15 fiscal year, 152,606 people used CitiBus, with $160,904 in revenues generated by passenger sales. With a budget of $1.1 million this fiscal year, CitiBus employs five bus drivers, a head bus driver and a transit supervisor.

Fares now are $1.50 for adults and 50 cents for children 12 and younger. Transfers are free. Disabled riders and senior citizens pay half fares.

The federal government foots the bill for half of CitiBus’s budget.

By Craig Fox, Watertown Daily Times