By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
News that authorities are scrutinizing allegations of a scheme to hide buses from federal auditors comes at a challenging time for Broward County Transit.
For the fifth year in a row, Broward bus ridership fell significantly in 2018. Annual ridership is now less than 29 million, down from nearly 39 million in 2014.
Declining transit ridership is a nationwide trend, with Florida experiencing the most dramatic decreases during that period, according to a February report prepared for the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) by the University of South Florida’s Center for Urban Transportation Research. And in Florida, the transit operator with the biggest percentage decrease is Broward, followed closely by its neighbors to the south and north.
“It is disheartening that the southeastern area in Florida comprised of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties suffered the greatest ridership losses despite this area having the densest settlement pattern, the most substantial transit level of service, and rapid population growth,” says the report.
Yet even as the number of Broward bus riders has plunged, the cost to operate Broward County Transit’s (BCT) fleet of more than 470 fixed route and demand response buses – like the paratransit TOPS program – has continued to rise. In 2013, BCT reported to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) that its annual operating expenses were $119.9 million. By 2017, the latest year for which numbers are available, BCT’s operating expenses had jumped 16 percent to $139.2 million, according to FTA records.
Most of the increase went to pay for higher salaries, wages and benefits, which jumped 23 percent to $87.2 million in 2017. Total BCT operating expenses from 2013-2017: $638.9 million.
At the same time, fare revenue covered a decreasing share of BCT’s operating funds (29 percent to 24 percent), with Broward taxpayers’ annual subsidy for the county bus system rising from $68 million to $80 million, FTA records show.
Why the decline?
Why the large ridership decline?
The FDOT study titled Understanding Ridership Trends in Transit, co-authored by USF Professor Steven Polzin and research associate Jodi Godfrey, examines the “nature of changes in travel behavior.” It begins with the unnerving observation that “both the magnitude and pervasiveness of the declines in transit ridership have made it increasingly apparent that this ridership downturn is unlike many other ridership fluctuations.”
Changes in ridership in Florida appear to be the result of travelers having less need to rely on public transit due to ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, telecommuting, e-commerce and, most significantly, increasing auto ownership and availability, Polzin said in an interview last week.
“Transit hasn’t gotten worse, but other options have gotten better,” Polzin said. He said transit operators remain critical to their communities, but need to “become more competitive” by improving reliability, accessibility, equity and other measures of the quality of service.
The competitive challenge to Broward County Transit to hold onto the 95,235 passengers it says it carries daily is considerable, given its low reputation for service. Here’s a sampling of recent comments on Facebook, where BCT rates just 2.1 out of 5 based on the opinion of 200 people. Drivers are “rude.” Buses “don’t show or show up late.” Routes get “skipped.” The BCT App “is supposed to run on real time but it does not.” Customer service “could care less.”
“In the past 2 years the services has truely (sic) gotten bad and unreliable,” Pompano Beach resident Joseph Lowe wrote last month.
Riders complain, too, about conditions aboard BCT buses. “Roach infested and dirty.” “Allow people to smoke anything including pot.” “Filthy.”
“It is disgusting and it is a disgrace,” wrote James O’Connor of Dania Beach.
‘Lack of funding’
Broward County Transportation Director Chris Walton would not be interviewed for this article. He did, however, release a statement saying, “BCT’s services have fallen behind after years of lack of funding.” Walton did not elaborate as to how a system which spent a reported $638.9 million on operating expenses from 2013-2017, and another $151.7 million on new buses and other capital projects, lacked for funds.
Without addressing complaints about the reliability and cleanliness of BCT’s bus fleet, Walton acknowledged the need to remain competitive by addressing “our service quality” and by implementing “continuous rider-based improvements.”
“Currently, we are working to install Wi-Fi on our entire bus fleet. Through a partnership with Broward County Libraries, passengers can download free music and soon they will be able to download e-books while they ride,” Walton said. He added that BCT will soon be analyzing its “entire route structure, ridership patterns, origins and destinations, and hours of service” and will implement a 10 percent increase in service later this year.
“These increases will restore services that were eliminated due to lack of funds…shorten the intervals between buses and extend the span of service hours on selected routes. An additional 10 percent service increase is planned for 2020,” Walton wrote.
According to the FDOT study, the competitive challenge to transit “is complicated by the fact that declining ridership creates financial pressures for agencies and undermines the productivity and efficiency of public transportation…This undermines both the justification for services as well as the political and public support for them.”
Financial pressures at BCT may also play a part as Broward auditors and investigators from the county’s office of professional standards look into an anonymous but unusual allegation that a pair of Broward transit employees who were fired in February for payroll fraud were involved in a scheme last June to help county transit officials hide buses from auditors of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The allegation was made on a federal anti-fraud hotline and sent to Broward’s inspector general, who declined to investigate and instead referred the matter to professional standards.
“The Broward Office of the Inspector General [OIG] received an anonymous tip alleging misconduct within Broward County Transit, to include bus operators being paid overtime in June 2018 to drive buses to Fleet Services on Blount Road in order to hide the buses from auditors from the United States Department of Transportation,” Deputy Inspector General Michael Mee wrote in a Feb. 19 letter.
A motive for the alleged scheme was not provided. Broward Transportation chief Walton has refused to answer questions about the bus hiding allegation.
On Nov. 6, Broward voters approved a one-cent increase in the sales tax, to seven percent, that is expected to raise billions over the next 30 years to reduce traffic congestion and “increase mobility and address transportation challenges,” including an expansion of bus service despite the steep decline in ridership and possibly the addition of light rail service down Broward Boulevard. Exactly how that money is to be spent, however, is not known.
Meanwhile, the good news about falling ridership is that it may be stabilizing, according to Professor Polzin.
“While the decline continued throughout 2018, there is some evidence we have bottomed out, or some locations have bottomed out,” Polzin said.