CERES, Calif. — Even before most places shut down due to the coronavirus, the Ceres Area Transit was struggling to keep ridership up and keep their head above water.
The transit service is expected to fold into the Modesto Area Express [MAX] after a Modesto City Council vote to handle the service. According to City of Modesto spokesperson Thomas Reeves, the Ceres transit will have seen its last ride by July 1.
However, a change in operator and some bus enhancements are the only things riders should expect in the near term. Modesto is committing to the current CAT service level and route for a year.
"The one year commitment was a request by Ceres," said Reeves. "MAX will be completing a previously planned Comprehensive Operational Analysis to analyze the route network. We will include Ceres in that study to provide recommendations on how to better structure the transit network in Modesto and Ceres, to make it easier to use the bus for transportation."
Ceres started this process back in 2019; it was part of an effort to avoid paying penalties due to dropping ridership.
Modesto's transit is large enough that taking in the extra route for Ceres likely wouldn't have much of an impact, according to a city staff analysis.
Ceres is the latest city in the county that's offered its transit service to a bigger agency. Riverbank and Oakdale made the jump years ago for similar reasons.
While ridership and penalties played a role, these mergers could also be foreshadowing a bigger consolidation.
"Part of it is direction of the StanCOG [Stanislaus County of Governments] Board… they’re actually in the second phase of a consolidation study and the consolidation study is looking at providing one transit operator for the entire county," said Dave Leamon, Public Works Director for Stanislaus County.
It would make transit service in Stanislaus County more like the Regional Transit District in San Joaquin County, where there's only one operator. Leamon says it would make the rides more seamless for riders, since they would only have one app on their phone and one bus ticket to buy.
"I think that the idea here is that we're not trying to decrease service. We're trying to improve service through consolidation," Leamon said.
Ultimately, any consolidation decision would be up to the elected officials of Stanislaus County, Modesto, and Turlock, but even then, it won't be until after the study is released.
However, current reasons for the drop in ridership are somewhat more obvious. The coronavirus, combined with mass closures and stay at home orders, hasn’t left a lot of places for people to go.
Leamon said transit ridership is down 76%, comparing the weeks of March 1 through March 15 to the same dates in April.
Drops in ridership brought multiple cities to the point where they had to hand over operations to another agency, but this drop in ridership is different. There’s no guarantee what exactly is going to happen.
"I think it's too early to tell. We hope that everything gets back to normal, whatever the new normal looks like," said Leamon. "I don’t think anybody, from what I’ve read, can tell us what the new normal is going to look like."
While the CARES act gives some relief for transit agencies, the main hope is just that the riders eventually come back.
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