The new County Connection line serving Mount Diablo Boulevard in Lafayette may be the next route to fall to budget cuts if ridership does not increase.
"If it doesn't get used, it'll be reviewed and potentially lost by the end of the year," said Jay Lifson, chief executive officer of the Lafayette Chamber of Commerce.
Route 25 buses travel between the Lafayette and Walnut Creek BART stations along Mt. Diablo Boulevard. Prior to the line's opening on March 23, there was no direct access to Lamorinda locations from other parts of the county. This line was conceived by the city of Lafayette to remedy that, and to provide service to Lafayette commuters, said Anne Muzzini, County Connection's Director of Planning.
"We pointed out that the (County Connection) service no longer provided a link to the rest of the system, and they were receptive to that argument," said Leah Greenblat, Lafayette's transportation planner. "We also explained that our larger employers are at that end of downtown, and there's no way to get there."
Route 25 had low ridership in its first few weeks of activity, but that was expected. "It always takes time to build up ridership," said Mary Burdick, County Connection's manager of marketing and public relations. "But people start getting used to it."
The County Connection advertised Route 25 before it started running, but because it has an advertising budget of $210,000 for the 2009-10 fiscal year — less than 1 percent of the agency's entire ad budget — it now relies on other public entities, Burdick said. Specifically for Route 25, Burdick relies on the city of Lafayette, the Lafayette Chamber of Commerce and 511 Contra Costa — an organization that provides incentives for efficient commuting — to inform the community about the new service.
But residents of Lafayette, such as bus rider Julene Allen, do not see the effects of outreach.
"It's not well advertised," Allen said. "I think if this was a private business rather than a government one, they'd be advertising a lot more. I don't know why they don't try to get the word out there."
Allen, who says the bus saves her from walking a mile, found out about Route 25 by chance when she saw the bus at the Lafayette BART station and asked the BART agent about it.
"It's extremely convenient," Allen said. "I think more people would use it if they knew about it."
Like Allen, rider Eva Dela Cruz learned of Route 25 when she saw a bus parked at Lafayette BART. The bus doubles the time it takes for Dela Cruz to get home to El Cerrito, so she only uses it when she can't carpool.
"If I was using my own car, (there would be) the mileage, the gas, the traffic," she said.
County Connection generally gives new bus routes time to bring ridership up to the system's average passengers per hour, which in April was 17.5. But County Connection Route 25 is the lowest performing of all fixed routes, with an hourly average of 5.8 passengers per hour in April, Burdick said.
Route 25 is showing improvement since it opened; the line's daily average has increased from 22 riders per day over the first two weeks to 67 for the month of April.
"We can see that there is growth," said Burdick. "We need to see it continue, and we expect to see it continue."
If there is no improvement, further service cuts will be considered among other options like fare increases and staff layoffs. "Our understanding was that, because it's a new service, we'd get some time to build a constituency for it, and it's only been a short time now," Greenblat said. "It would be very disappointing if it were cut."