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Undercurrents: Loosen Your Grip on the Steering Wheel; Move into the Fast Lane

A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

No wonder our roads are clogged. “Everybody’s” driving – and then some. With an adult population of less than 70,000, we have 74,513 registered vehicles.

The vehicle numbers come from the Bureau of Motor Vehicles in 2010 and are cited in a V.I. Energy Office report on ways to reduce gasoline consumption.

“We haven’t spent the time exploring our transportation plan, and we do have one,” said Energy Director Karl Knight. One key element of the plan is improving mass transportation options throughout the territory, but “as a community, we haven’t spent a lot of attention on mass transportation” either, he said.

There was attention paid in early October in the “Skip the Fuss, Ride the Bus” campaign, when Public Works and the Energy Office rolled out 22 new Vitran buses, purchased with Federal Transit Authority and Federal Highway Administrative funds, and invited the public to try them out free for a day.

But Knight knows it will take more than one free ride to convince a substantial number of us to park our cars and get on the bus.

As recently as 2011, when the Energy Office report was completed, only a fraction of the population was riding Vitran. Citing figures from the USVI household travel survey, the report stated that 78.7 percent of workers regularly drove by themselves to the job. Another 8.4 percent were in some sort of car pool. Just 2.5 percent walked, 2.7 percent took a “dollar ride” taxi shuttle. Only 2.6 percent rode the bus.

Buses are “currently not the commuters’ ride of choice,” said Knight. The way to make mass transit a viable option is to improve it.

“Buses have to be reliable and keep to a schedule,” he said. They also need to service “the areas where the people actually live.”

The expansion of bus routes is part of the master plan for improving transportation.

At the time of the report, there were only 12 fixed route buses serving the entire territory, so obviously coverage was very limited. The report recommended adding the following routes:
– St. John – Gifft Hill Road between Centerline and Southside Roads;
– St. John – Southside Road west of Gifft Hill Road;
– St. Thomas – Shuttle from Frenchtown to Patriot Manor;
– St. Thomas – Mahogany Run Road from Tutu Park Mall to Magens Road;
– St. Thomas – Shuttle service to Red Hook Ferry Dock;
– St. Croix – Still under study

Once the routes are established – expanded or not – they need to be published, Knight said. At the time of the “Skip the Fuss …” the St. Croix schedule was completed, but the one for St. Thomas-St. John was being revised.

Money was reserved from the federal funds to pay for publicizing the schedules, Knight said. So once they are available, they will be distributed widely, both as hard copy and through the Internet.

“The way to encourage ridership is to let people know when and where the buses will be,” he said.

The 2011 energy report included a recommendation to install geotrackers on all the buses. These GIS-based transmitters track a bus’s location and enable coordination with waiting passengers, with other buses, and possibly even with safari taxis. Passengers can access the information on a website from a mobile device.

The initial cost would be $1,200 per bus and $6,000 per route, according to the report. After that, the cost would be $100 per month per bus.

Knight did not comment on that specific proposal but, in general, he indicated he favors spending money to improve mass transportation rather than using it to enhance private vehicle use.

There’s a cost to widening roads and intersections and to increasing parking areas, he said, noting that currently the government is considering putting in a parking garage in the Fort Christian parking lot.

“You’re going to make the investment one way or the other,” he said. Mass transit is “an ecologically and socially better investment.”

And it doesn’t all have to fall on the government. Knight believes a public-private partnership is “the ideal” for operating public buses.

“The model is already here,” he said. Public Works partnered with the private sector to expand interisland ferry service. The government purchased new boats but private companies run them.

A similar plan could be implemented for mass transit, alleviating traffic congestion and reducing the need for parking, he said.

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