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An innovative approach saves Hamilton's bus company.

Not long ago, Hamilton, Ohio's bus system was suffering from declining ridership, poor on-time performance and a generally negative public image.

In February, 1991, the city council seriously considered terminating the service altogether.

An exhaustive study of options for meeting Americans with Disabilities Act requirements indicated four choices: disband the system, convert to a full demand responsive system, continue operating a fixed-route system with complementary paratransit service, or do something innovative.

A full, demand responsive system was ruled out because ridership was too high. If paratransit were implemented, some routes would have to be eliminated to remain within budget.

Hamilton chose innovation.

For the past six months, the city's approximately 61,000 residents have enjoyed personalized, accessible, curb-to-curb service within their neighborhoods or to the downtown transfer point to connect with other buses in the system.

Introduction of the service, known as Personal Plus, has earned Hamilton the distinction of being the first American city to fully convert from a fixed-route to a personalized point deviation operation.

"As a result of this first-in-the-nation point deviation system, The Bus Company has not only been salvaged, but is on the road towards being a state-of-the-art, one-of-a-kind service," said Mayor Adolf Olivas, a member of NLC's Advisory Council.

"Introduction of this new, more convenient service enabled The Bus Company to continue to provide public transportation to the residents of Hamilton and comply with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act," said Bus Company General Manager Michael Melaniphy.

"The new service is totally accessible to the disabled and allows The Bus Company to provide the same level of service to all residents of Hamilton, Melaniphy added. "In addition, The Bus Company will be able to provide this personalized service at a lower annual operating cost than the fixed-route service."

Under Personal Plus, passengers arrange to be picked up at a designated location at a specified time by calling Monday to Friday during business hours, at least 24 hours, but not more than a week in advance, to schedule a ride.

Riders can also catch buses at designated stops at major points, such as shopping centers, hospitals and schools, as well as flag them down along routes.

Regular trips may be reserved and will be scheduled until canceled. The Bus Company also tries to accommodate trips requested less than 24 hours in advance, although it may have to schedule them somewhat earlier or later than desired.

Service is available throughout the city weekdays from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Fares for the new service have remained the same as under the previous fixed-route system, and transfers are provided at no charge.

Personal Plus was initiated on an experimental basis in one low- ridership area in October, 1992, and transit manager Melaniphy said he was "stunned" by the results. Ridership increased there, which he attributed to regular patrons using the system more frequently. Point deviation service also provided the elderly and handicapped, whose numbers have increased dramatically in recent years and now comprise 40 percent of Hamilton's bus passengers, with a means to travel.

Introduction of Personal Plus was supported by an aggressive marketing plan. For about eight weeks prior to implementation, the public and riders received the message through the print and broadcast media and collateral material.

Opening day ceremonies were held March 29 in the parking area behind city hall. Representatives of the Ohio Department of Transportation and the Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana Regional Council of Governments joined city officials in celebrating "how Hamilton conquered the ADA hurdles," in Melaniphy's words.

Officials unveiled one of the 24 new signs that have been placed at designated bus stops downtown and throughout the city. The signs provide the printed route number as well as information in Braille and tactile for the visually impaired.

One of the system's ten new vandal-resistant, weather-proof waiting shelters was temporarily set up for inspection. The shelters, which accommodate wheelchairs, have been installed at major boarding points.

During kick-off week, The Bus Company was flooded with requests. Even though a new telephone system had been installed for the occasion, many callers encountered busy signals.

More telephone lines were quickly added and additional employees assigned to taking calls.

A new system with a sequencer and triple the number of lines was installed several weeks ago and is running smoothly

A recent passenger survey elicited very positive comments and indicated that 15 percent of current riders began using the system since the institution of point deviation.

Melaniphy's predictions of cost savings have been borne out. Hamilton's bus system is now serving a greater geographic area at 80 percent of its previous operating costs, and has seen a 35 percent reduction in miles traveled.

Personal Plus was honored with the 1993 Innovation Award by ATE Management and Service Company, manager of the system. The award was presented in August at the annual transit management meeting attended by top personnel of the 50 systems ATE manages nationwide.

Hamilton created Personal Plus, envisioning a small-system alternative for meeting ADA requirements. Officials have been approached by a number of other jurisdictions seeking to implement a similar system. (Point deviation is used in only two other American cities, and only on a limited basis.)

Inquiries have also come from larger communities considering it for use at night or in low-ridership areas.

"We are very proud of the strides we have taken with our bus company in Hamilton," Mayor Olivas said. "We anticipate its model being used elsewhere in the nation."

For more information, contact Olivas: Municipal Building, 20 High Street, Hamilton, Ohio 45011; (513) 868-5800.
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Title Annotation:City Ideas That Work; Hamilton, Ohio
Author:Turner, Laura
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Oct 4, 1993
Words:930
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