Freedom Transit sees 3 percent increase in ridership during past year

August 25, 2016
Washington County Transportation Authority Executive Director Sheila Gombita shows poster-sized maps and schedules at Freedom Transit’s East Chestnut Street hub. - Barbara Miller/Observer-Reporter Order a Print

On Wednesday, the concrete was drying around a newly installed bicycle rack at 50 E. Chestnut St., Washington.

Bikes may not have been an element of “intermodal transportation” officials envisioned when a proposal for the center formed more than seven years ago, but Sheila Gombita, executive director of the Washington County Transportation Authority, said, “People have asked where to chain a bike.”

Instead of attaching their conveyances to an adjacent lamp post, eight bicyclists can now share the rack.

That may have been one of the transportation authority’s easiest problems to solve. More difficult was a situation two years ago, when shared-ride users of the Washington Rides paratransit were engaged in a series of meetings aimed at working out the bugs from a new computerized route-mapping system that was causing long waits, leaving people stranded and otherwise inconveniencing the transit-using public.

“During the past year, our complaints have gone down significantly,” Gombita said. “Our on-time performance has averaged anywhere between 93 and 95 percent, which is pretty high. That means we’re getting people where they need to go on time.” The transportation authority board also formed an advisory committee that meets four times a year to air complaints and discuss potential changes in service.

Last summer, Washington City Transit and the county transportation authority merged and, in September, officials cut the ribbon at the new building on East Chestnut Street, rolling out the name Freedom Transit.

“It’s been kind of a whirlwind the past year,” Gombita said.

Here are some of the changes:

• Previously, the Washington City Transit agency, but not the county transportation authority, was eligible for a federal operating grant for fixed-route systems. Since the merger, the 2016-17 a federal Transit Administration operating grant increased by 4.3 percent to $1,671,156. The total 2016-17 operating budget adopted by the Washington County Transportation Authority board was $6.6 million.

• Ridership has increased 3 percent overall from the year before the merger. “We attribute that to marketing and rebranding,” Gombita said. “Increases in ridership also result in increases in funding. We would like it to be more along the lines of 5 to 7 percent.”

• A new website, www.freedom-transit.org, went live in March 2016.

• Washington City Transit’s Twitter account, active since 2014, is now @WashPATransit, which notifies passengers of delays in service.

• Although motorists and bus riders still see vehicles bearing the Washington Rides logo, it’s being phased out and shares space with the new brand, Freedom Transit, taken from the McDonald to Washington fixed-route bus service known the Freedom Line.

• More than 700 people a month have visited the new building to find out information or use the waiting room. “The presence of the facility being here has made a difference,” Gombita said.

• The state Department of Transportation is having a consultant, Michael Baker Corp., analyze overlapping routes and unserved areas that could be developed into routes. Part of the study is what Gombita called the simplification and standardization of fares, which cannot take place until public hearings are convened in late fall or early winter. In addition to the Freedom Line, the service offers a “hopper” bus in the Washington area and commuter service from Washington to Pittsburgh.

• Although the authority has posted signs at bus stops, “Flag stops are still our speciality,” Gombita said, meaning that someone who wants to board a bus can try hailing a bus driver for an impromptu stop along a fixed route.

• A rider left out in the cold on a frigid Martin Luther King Day last winter complained to the county commissioners he would have preferred to wait for his bus inside a warm lobby. The building remains closed on holidays and weekends, but the transportation authority has plans for a bus shelter on East Chestnut Street that can accommodate 10 to 12 people, and perhaps other shelters along fixed routes.

The transportation authority owns 10 vehicles that are part of the fixed-route Freedom fleet, 50 to 55 paratransit vehicles and eight buses that travel between Pittsburgh and Washington. The system’s largest bus costs about $400,000 and last about a decade. The transit center is not a bus garage, so vehicles are parked at the First Transit facility in Chartiers Township, MV Transportation on Stewart Avenue, Washington, and at Tri-County Access in Donora.

Although no interstate carriers stop at the center, Gombita said she has been in touch with Greyhound, Megabus and Mountain Line Transit Authority, based in Morgantown, W.Va., which connects with both the downtown Pittsburgh Greyhound Terminal and Pittsburgh International Airport.

The Washington County commissioners encouraged a merger of not only the former Washington City Transit and Washington County Transportation Authority, but also Mon Valley Transit. “There’s not really been any talk, there’s not really been any discussion,” Gombita said. “Our doors are always open.”

Also during the past year, a new wrinkle appeared on the transit horizon: ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft.

Gombita said the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority in Philadelphia, known as SEPTA, is one of several transit agencies nationwide that has developed a partnership with Uber.

Uber, the global ride-sharing provider, announced less than a month ago that it was extending service to Washington and Greene counties.

Louise McClenathan of Washington said Uber piqued her interest, but “I don’t have a usable computer at the moment. For me to use it, I have to download an app.”

A Google search turned up the phone number 415-801-4068 and an emergency hotline, but the entry cautions that when calling it, one receives a long message about Uber’s service and how to use the Uber app. Online comments on the topic claim that the ride-sharing services are leaving out a large segment of the population.

Gombita said because a privately-owned ride-sharing service can transport people on Sundays, after 8 p.m. and outside its geographic footprint, “It makes more a more robust transportation system.”

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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