PHOTO/DAVID ROBERT: A woman waits for an RTC bus at the Reno station on Fourth Street on April 22.

Washoe County’s mass transit service lost 2.5 million riders (about 30%) between 2016 and 2021 and officials plan to reconfigure services and routes later this year after soliciting public comments on its proposals.

In the meantime, the Regional Transportation Commission is scheduled to return bus routes to normal levels on May 7, after reverting to “Sunday-level” service on Jan. 8. Three routes – 2S, 3CC and 19 – will be discontinued due to limited use.

Normal transit services are set to resume May 7, a result of more drivers being hired. Commission officials are in the process of getting public comment on plans to revamp the region’s transit services to be more responsive to community needs.

“We are asking for community feedback on some transit service changes that could start as early as September and be implemented over the next five years,” said Lauren Ball, RTC public information officer. “These are some pretty big changes, some of the biggest that have been proposed in RTC history.”

A recent study commissioned by RTC recommended changes to 21 RTC bus routes, including 2, 3CC, 3CL, 4, 5, 6, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 19, 21, 25, 26, 54, and Somerset/Verdi FlexRIDE. The study also is  proposing to add two new routes by discontinuing three routes and adding two new FlexRIDE zones in West Reno and South Meadows – Damonte Ranch.

“We’re asking for feedback before any of those changes go into effect,” Ball said. “We had a survey previously where we asked the public how we could make our services better, we also talked to our board to get their input and we put that all together and created a set of recommended improvements. That’s what we’re asking for (public comment) on.”

A video on RTC’s website explains the proposals and an online survey is available on the site.

The RTC is seeking the community’s input on the future of transit in our community, including potential changes and improvements to 21 of the RTC’s transit routes in response to recent community feedback. To provide input on the proposed improvements, the RTC is asking the community to participate by watching a virtual presentation and taking an online survey. Community members are  encouraged to take a short survey through May 16. People who take the survey and provide their phone number will receive a free 7-day RTC RIDE pass through the Token Transit app. Free passes can take up to three weeks to process.

Board vote expected in July

The proposals will be on the RTC board’s agenda in July; the changes could start by September. Some of those proposals, Ball said, are “designed to increase ridership and be more responsive to new ridership trends.” Those proposals include introducing micro-transit, FlexRIDE, into more suburban areas or into areas that now have fixed-route transit or low ridership. FlexRIDE uses smaller vehicles and provides curbside-to-curbside service. Customers can call for service, get picked up near their homes and go anywhere within the FlexRIDE zone or go to one of RTC’s transit stations to connect with the fixed-route system.

“It comes right to you,” Ball said. “You can request it like you’d request a ride-sharing service. Instead of say, $15 for an Uber ride, you’ll pay $3 for a day pass.” The three existing zones are in Sparks/Spanish Springs, Verdi/Somerset and the North Valleys.    The proposed changes include additional FlexRide zones in southwest Reno and one in the Damonte Ranch area.

PHOTO/DAVID ROBERT: The Regional Transportation Commission has added electric buses to its fleet.

Ridership declining since 2016

The nosedive in ridership hammered the transit company’s fare revenue over the last five years, but those figures weren’t immediately available. The lion’s share of the money for the agency’s mass transit arm comes from local, state and federal funding, not fares. “There are no plans to change our fares,” Ball said. “Our fares were lowered across the board about three years ago to make it easier for people who need transit to access transit services.”

At an RTC board meeting in January, officials complained that the service is chasing an obsolete operations model, and some members supported major changes. RTC director Bill Thomas noted that people are driving more, not less, and operational and infrastructure costs keep going up.

 “It’s a zero-sum game in terms of the money we’re bringing in. We have little control over the costs, but we have to make some tough choices in terms of what we do in changing or eliminating service.” – Bill Thomas, RTC director, at the January board meeting.

The 30% loss in regular bus ridership was underway even before the COVID-19 contagion and the three bus strikes last year: between fiscal year 2016 and 2019, RTC RIDE’s annual ridership decreased by 518,000, with another 2 million riders lost between 2019 and 2021.

SOURCE/REGIONAL TRANSPORTATION COMMISSION: The chart shows ridership on regular RTC routes from Fiscal Year 2016 to December 2021. Regular bus routes lost 2,530,685 riders between 2016 and 2021. When FlexRIDE and other small-vehicle statistics are added to the figures, total RTC ridership decreased by 2,473,211.

A ‘nail in the coffin’

RTC’s other transit services — FlexRIDE, VANPOOL, and ACCESS, which involve smaller busses and vans that pick up passengers when called to specific locations – failed to significantly offset the loss in regular ridership. The commission has added to those services over the last several years.

 “(RTC’s ridership) numbers were well in decline prior to the pandemic,” said Kyril Plaskon, president of the Truckee Meadows Bicycle Alliance. “…It’s shocking that other transportation options have not made up for the massive decline in ridership. The pandemic is just a nail in the coffin that they have to crawl out of.”

Plaskon said micromobility options like Bird scooters, which recently set up a rental system in Reno, can help. Bird and other micromobility companies have helped mass transit in other cities, he noted. But he said local government leaders and the RTC board have to get behind those innovations and not see the  future of such transportation as a competitor to traditional services. The commissioners, he said, “need to leverage assets like Bird to help RTC crawl out of its coffin and increase ridership.”

Strikes slammed commuters

Ridership on RTC RIDE, the regular bus route service, took another significant nosedive during three transit strikes in 2021, totaling 60 days. Ridership decreased more than 600,000 during the strike periods. The work stoppages left many local commuters scrambling for alternative ways to get to work, school and medical and other appointments.

After first walking off the job in August for 10 days against the Regional Transportation Commission’s contractor, Keolis, over attempts to cut their long-standing union contract, drivers represented by Teamsters Local 533 went on strike for another 25 days beginning in late September. The last work stoppage was a 25-day walkout that ended Dec. 2. The issues involved working conditions and pay increases for drivers. The drivers now have a three-year contract with the company.

Keolis had an estimated revenue of $7.552 billion in 2019. It is 70% owned by France’s national state-owned railway company, SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français), and 30% owned by CDPQ (Caisse de Dépôt et Placement du Québec), an institutional investor. Estimated revenue for SNCF was $32 billion in 2020, while CDPQ controlled an estimated $309.7 billion, as of June 2021.

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