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ROTA Service Seeks Merger With County Transit System
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Dorothy Rowland boards a Dial A Ride ROTA bus to return home after having her hair done at Barbaras Beauty Salon in downtown Riverbank. Directors of Riverbank Oakdale Transit Authority recently voted to have Stanislaus Regional Transit take over and run the ROTA system. - photo by John Branch/The Leader

Riverbank Oakdale Transit Authority directors have decided to merge their system with Stanislaus Regional Transit (StaRT) and have the county take over administration of the public bus program that has served the two cities since 1993.

Following many months of discussion, the ROTA board voted 3-0 on June 12 to begin seeking incorporation that will require dissolution of the authority and setting up memorandums of agreement between the two cities and the county. The plan is to complete transfer of operations early in 2013, preferably in January.

Board member Kathy Morgan expressed fears the cities would lose local control, consideration of individuals’ needs and the personal touch – like dispatchers and bus drivers knowing nearly all regular passengers by name.

But StaRT Manager Eunice Lovi, presenting a written Department of Public Works proposal, noted the county has experience in small town needs as it already runs bus systems for the cities of Patterson, Waterford and Newman, and the drivers on the Dial A Ride buses will remain the same since Storer Transportation runs the system for both ROTA and StaRT.

Fares would be lower, she said. It is anticipated that fares in Riverbank and Oakdale would be the same as in the rest of StaRT. In August of 2011, StaRT began charging $1.50 for general fare, including students and $1.25 for seniors and persons with disabilities. Riders would have more opportunities to connect to other routes without paying transfer fees. The county, however, would need to evaluate the existing zone fare for those traveling east of Oakdale.

“Based on preliminary analysis of ROTA service, the County has determined the current ROTA service will remain the same for the first year of operation,” the proposal said.

County buses already run through Oakdale and Riverbank with a fixed route service on Route 60. There is also a deviated fixed route service in the Eastside Shuttle connecting residents of the two cities to Modesto, as well as the Waterford Dial-A-Ride that connects that city’s residents to east Oakdale.

“We have tried everything,” ROTA Transit Coordinator Donna Bridges said at one point. “The fare box ratio has not been achieved in the last five years.”

Since a financial consultant’s assessment in 2009-2010 when the trolley service was eliminated and the budget cut by $800,000, the fare box ratio had improved but that was because of budget cuts, she noted, not because the ridership had gone up.

ROTA ended fiscal year 2010-2011 with a 7 percent fare box ratio. Because it did not meet the mandated 10 percent, ROTA incurred a $14,000 penalty (the difference between actual fares and mandated fares) which the state plans to subtract from its grant to operate for fiscal year 2013-14.

ROTA is currently operating at 9 percent fare box ratio but is now seeing a decrease in ridership due to summer vacations. The authority has done extensive marketing to Riverbank and Oakdale service clubs, schools, businesses and participated in fundraisers and local events. These groups have purchased tickets and given them back, which helps boost the fare box ratio.

“But this is only a temporary solution. Ridership needs to increase substantially in order for us to maintain our public transit system,” Bridges said. “Currently we cannot add any service like Saturdays, because we cannot meet the fare box ratio.”

Funding for ROTA comes from Local Transportation Funds derived from a one-fourth cent of the general sales tax collected statewide. But to obtain state funds, ROTA must collect 10 percent of its total operating costs in fare revenue.

Formed in 1993 as a joint powers authority, Bridges said of ROTA’s history, it had at first only a curb to curb Dial A Ride service and reached in 2002-2003 an all-time ridership high with an average per month of 5,856. It currently averages about 1,500 riders per month.

ROTA directors then added a fixed route served by trolleys but riders did not like the change, since they had to walk up to a quarter mile to board fixed route buses that were sometimes not running on time or deviating from the route.

Storer Transit took over the service in 2007-2008. Customer service and on time performance were excellent. In fiscal year 2009-2010, a consultant was hired to review the service. Trolley service was eliminated and the budget cut by $800,000.