The Merrill-Go-Round bus service will begin cross-town service every hour beginning Jan. 1. The new bus schedule will make the service more efficient in the face of decreasing revenues, said Merrill Transit Director Rich Grenfell.
Due to revenue cuts from both the state and federal levels, Merrill Transit has lost $41,000 in funding over the past two years. Bus routes were reworked for efficiency last year and hours were reduced.
“We have three buses a day,” Grenfell said. “That’s all we can afford to put out there.”
A 30-minute route isn’t realistic anymore, Grenfell said.
“From West Jackson Street to Walmart is a 17 minute route without a stop,” he said. “With the demand on the system, we can’t get the work done in 30 minutes.”
With the loss of funding and the time to get across town, Grenfell said now is the time to start the one-hour service.
“It’s going to be a little less service, but it will be more manageable,” he said. “We will be able to communicate pickup times to nearly every passenger based on the new timetable.”
The Merrill-Go-Round buses will run 10 hours a day, Monday through Friday. At the top of every hour, the two cross-town buses will start with their first pickups at the farthest points east and west. At the 30-minute mark, the buses will theoretically pass each other near Center Avenue as they pick up and drop off passengers. When they reach the opposite ends of the city, the drivers should have some time to organize their pickups and drop-offs for the next hour before doing it all over again.
“We anticipate the longest ride to be 50 minutes,” he said. “We hope to have a 5-10 minute layover, which we never had before.”
The third bus has its own routes on school days to pick up and drop off students in the city. That bus is also available to assist during the day with transporting riders who use mobility devices. The transit system can get as many as right requests an hour from such riders.
The one-hour service will reduce the number of trips to the Walmart shopping area from 18 a day to eight, with more riders per stop. Grenfell said he expects higher rider demand with the new Walmart and the additional businesses anticipated in that area.
Merrill Transit moves more than 300 people per day and takes well over 1,000 calls per week. The department is staffed by two full-time office personnel, three full-time drivers and a part-time office worker. Merrill has a 130-year history of public transportation.
The past two years have been the toughest years for public transportation in the history of Wisconsin, Grenfell said. The state transit organization has been lobbying for restored funding in 2015.
“When they take away funding, (legislators) don’t realize the impact it’s having on small rural systems,” Grenfell said. “It just about wiped us out. There are over 60 small systems in the state and we’re all getting hit really hard.”
Merrill Transit is looking to move its operation into the soon to be vacated Merrill Fire Station in 2014. The Transit service has applied for a Federal Transit Administration grant to assist with the renovation and relocation project.
The fire station’s apparatus bay will require some adjustments to house the buses, but the facility is overall suitable for the transit system’s use, Grenfell said.
The cost to remodel the fire station and relocate the transit system is anticipated at $200,000. The local share of $40,000 has been budgeted by the city for 2014.
The current bus station is built on an old landfill. Due to potential contamination in the ground, the Federal Transit Administration denied funding to expand or remodel that facility in 2010.
“Because it’s built on an old landfill, the federal government decided to not reinvest in that property,” Grenfell said.