Major changes coming to Tallahassee bus service By TaMaryn Waters Democrat staff writer The countdown has started. Bus service in Tallahassee will undergo the biggest change in city history when StarMetro implements Nova 2010 - a system that will reduce routes from the current 26 downtown routes to 12 cross-town routes and eliminate the need to transfer at the C.K. Steele Plaza downtown. The changes take effect July 11. The decentralized system will allow riders to transfer at roughly 40 selected bus stops throughout the city, depending on where they're going, which is supposed to reduce wait and travel time. Still, some residents, including those with disabilities, are nervous. Ola Smith, a 73-year-old retiree and vice president of the Sherwood Park subdivision off North Ridge Road, said many residents in her neighborhood are older and walk with canes. She has chronic back pain, and walking is often a challenge. Smith said the closest bus stop will be two blocks away from her at North Ridge Road and Sunnyside Drive. Under the current system, her bus stop is less than half a block away. "When something is not broken, why are you trying to fix it?" Smith asked in frustration. "It's terrible. It is absolutely terrible." Other loyal and longtime bus riders like Kevin Davis, 48, say the current system is broken and change is long overdue. "For too many years, we have had a system that takes you an hour to get anywhere," said Davis, a computer programmer for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles and chairman of StarMetro's Transportation Advisory Committee. "While this may not be a perfect solution, it's a step in the right direction." How it will work First, fares will not change, including the one-trip fare that is $1.25 now. The 12 routes, with names such as Azalea, Big Bend, Dogwood and Tall Timbers, generally operate during weekdays from 5:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., said Heather Teter, marketing specialist for StarMetro. Five night routes, identified on buses and route schedules by the letter "N" and a number, generally operate from 7 to 10:30 p.m., depending on the route. Night routes run Monday through Saturday. No night routes run on Sunday, Teter said. Sunday routes will operate from 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Most routes have peak times during morning and afternoon commutes, along with off-peak times. Buses will arrive at a stop more frequently during peak times. For example, the Canopy route traveling along West Tennessee Street between Tallahassee Community College and Magnolia Drive will have buses running every 20 minutes at peak times and every 30 minutes at off-peak times. Ron Garrison, executive director of StarMetro, said this is a big change from buses arriving every hour. He added the new system will save StarMetro about $36,000 a year; the transit system's annual budget is nearly $17 million. "If you look at a lot of communities around the country that are downsizing their budgets, the exciting part is that we can save a little money and provide infinitely better bus service for our community," Garrison said. With this massive change, Garrison is expecting some hiccups. He said buses on popular routes may get crowded and that may cause a need for more buses in the system, which currently uses 70. The number of bus stops also will be reduced from 1,052 to 766, Teter said. Most of the system's stops are up, but some are labeled inactive, meaning riders won't be able to use them until after the launch. About a week before July 11, Teter said eliminated stops will be taken down. The system comes with upgrades The list of new features doesn't stop with routes. For the first time, Garrison said residents can purchase fares online for monthly passes. New buses will have flat-screen televisions, and residents who are visually impaired can identify stops based on new Braille identification on stop poles, which will have an octagonal shape to differentiate them from other poles. Bus stops also will have ID numbers. This will allow riders to find out when a bus is scheduled to arrive at a specific stop by texting the ID to a specified number. About a month after launch, Garrison said riders will be able to get real-time information on bus arrivals. One of the most innovative features is the ability to plan trips online. A rider can type in an address or a landmark, such as Governor's Square or Tallahassee Mall, and find out which bus to get on from his or her address. Riders can find out options, including the fastest route or the route with the fewest amount of transfers. These changes were Garrison's vision for Tallahassee, even before he got the job as StarMetro's top boss six years ago. He previously managed bus systems serving the Washington D.C., area and Fairfax, Va. Garrison said Tallahassee's population has grown over the years, along with growth beyond the downtown area. "I saw that Tallahassee needed this," he said. Change was inevitable In 1930, the city's population was 10,700, while 12,776 people, lived in unincorporated Leon County, according to the Tallahassee-Leon County Planning Department. There's been a steady climb since. The city's population grew by 30,752 residents between 2000 and 2010, while the county's unincorporated population grew by 5,283 residents. During that decade, 85 percent of the population growth for Leon County occurred within city limits, compared to the 55 percent growth in the city between 1990 and 2000. Tallahassee grew outward, bringing retail stores, businesses and recreation out of downtown. Garrison said the current bus system was a "good plan" and made efficient use of its money for years. "As the city got bigger and bigger and bigger, it made sense to make a change," he said. Harry Reed, executive director of the Capital Region Transportation Planning Agency, said StarMetro's move is intimately tied to a regional mobility plan designed to create better connections with surrounding counties. The new system is laying the framework for potential bus service to Jefferson and Wakulla counties. Currently, StarMetro helps coordinate and facilitate an express shuttle bus provided through Big Bend Transit from Quincy that stops in Midway and TCC and then comes to the C.K. Steele Plaza five times daily. Reed said the express bus is 80 to 90 percent full most of the time. Concerns still linger with some riders StarMetro hosted more than 100 listening sessions with the hopes of learning concerns and informing residents of the changes. Jim Totter, who rides a bus at least five times weekly, attended several sessions. He said he didn't have a problem with the original Nova 2010 proposal, which included 12 routes running at night and on Sundays. The 54-year-old retiree feels restricted under the new system with only five routes running nights and Sundays. "I won't be able to go to church on Sundays," said Totter, who attends Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church on Miccosukee Road. He can't walk more than 350 feet because he suffers from peripheral artery disease (PAD), which causes poor circulation in his limbs. For Totter, the new system will put the closest stop for night and Sunday service in front of Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, which is about a mile from his home in Cherrywood Apartments on Miccosukee Road. Other riders are looking forward to the bus system. Marcus Little, 55, moved back to Tallahassee in July after living in Los Angeles, where he rode the bus often. Little, a retired pressman for The Orange County Register, said the new system is a lot like the one he's used to. "I won't have to wait as long anymore," Little said about bus arrivals and transfers. In the last year, riders also expressed frustration regarding the need to cross intersections to reach some of the 766 stops that will be in the system. Randy Lombardo, who doesn't ride the bus currently, said he's not sold on public promises of efficiency with the new system. And he's especially miffed about StarMetro charging for ride guides. However, Garrison said a $1 charge for the guides is not going into effect yet. "We are probably going to sell them for a $1 fee, but we haven't decided when," he said. "Right now, they are going to be free. We really think that's the right thing to do since this is a whole new system." Others have taken this approach StarMetro currently has a "hub and spoke" structure for bus service, meaning there's one primary place for riders to transfer buses. However, nationally, other cities are considering changes, too, said Jeff Hiot, senior program manager at the American Public Transportation Association. "It's not efficient if it's only one central hub. The ones that are changing are the smaller systems," Hiot said, noting some cities have more than one hub. In Wisconsin, the city of Madison's Metro Transit implemented a service change in 1998 similar to the one coming to Tallahassee. Madison went from having one transfer place to four in an effort to serve the outlying neighborhoods better, said Drew Beck, planning manager for Madison's transit system. Madison fares went from $1.25 in 1997 to $2, and students at the University of Wisconsin have unlimited rides with the new system (which is something students at Florida A&M University, Florida State University and TCC get already). Beck's advice for StarMetro is to keep pumping information about how to use the system out to the community. "You can't do too much of that," he said. Beck said there was some backlash from residents in the first year after the launch. "Overall, after time, it sort of died down as people found out they could do new things on the new system they couldn't with the old system," he said. Madison's ridership swelled under the new system, Beck said. In 1997, a year before the launch, ridership was 10.4 million a year. It dipped slightly to 10.1 million during the launch year. An increase began in 2001 and the city had an annual ridership of 13.6 million by 2010. More ridership expected with Nova 2010 Residents will be flooded with information during the weeks before the launch by way of newspaper, television and radio ads; outreach to the universities; Facebook and Twitter; and brochures in utility bills. Nevertheless, Garrison is expecting an initial drop in ridership. Currently, StarMetro's ridership is 4.7 million, with 58 to 61 percent coming from college students, he said. He's predicting double-digit increases in ridership after the initial drop. In three years from the launch, Garrison said the lowest projected ridership is about an 18-percent increase, and the highest projection is a 30-percent increase. During the final stretch leading to the launch, Garrison has to make sure StarMetro's hotline has ample employees to man the phones. Nearly 200 people have signed up to be volunteer "ambassadors" on most buses and at C.K. Steele Plaza a week before July 11. They will help riders learn the system. For the moment, though, StarMetro staffers are juggling an array of needs before July 11. "It's freaking huge," Garrison said, breaking his serious countenance with a smile for a moment. "You wouldn't believe the stuff that we had to do to get this thing going. It's really big." - Contact Reporter TaMaryn Waters at (850) 599-2162; e-mail tlwaters@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx ; or www.twitter.com/TaMarynWaters Additional Facts If you go Upcoming learning sessions d June 21 - 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 5 to 7 p.m., Walker-Ford Community Center, 2301 Pasco St. d June 28 - noon to 2 p.m. and 5 to 7 p.m. at Northeast Branch Public Library, 5513 Thomasville Road. d June 29 - 5 to 7 p.m. Main Branch Public Library, 200 W. Park Ave.