October 16, 2009
The BUS: Ready for its closeup...
LIGHTS! CAMERA! CUE THE BUS...
That was the scene this morning, as David Martinez -- clad in a tan Safari hat -- drove a spotless Belle Urban System bus toward the garage on Kentucky Street, covering the 100-ft. distance two, three, four times... until videographer Gary Alvarado said the shot was just right.
The BUS is about to star in its own TV commercials, aimed at increasing ridership while at the same time promoting three of Racine's attractions: the beach, the Zoo and Downtown shopping.
Alas, my timing was off: I arrived at the beginning of the shoot. A mermaid will join the cast tomorrow, as Corporate Images advertising agency films three commercials that will air on local cable next year. The theme: "The bus: Connecting you to your world."
This has been an interesting year for the BUS (as in the old Chinese proverb and curse, May you live in interesting times.) Ridership is up, although only incrementally, to about 1.5 million. More importantly, the issue of regional transportation has moved from the back burner to the front, both nationally and in the Legislature. And although lawmakers continue to kick it around as part of the commuter rail debate -- passing a hinky regional funding source based on rental cars, having the governor veto it, playing hide-n-seek with the blasphemous idea (to some, like Sen. John Lehman) of a countywide sales tax -- most onlookers believe that something will come out at the end that will allow an expansion of BUS service.
In the meantime, Curtis Garner, executive director of Racine's bus system, is using part of an $80,000 Congestion, Mitigation and Air Quality grant (matched with 20% local money) to fund the commercials; their promotion of public transportation fits directly into CMAQ's purpose. He'll spend $20,100 to make the commercials, and $10,000 to $15,000 to air them on local TV. "The goal is to promote both Racine and the Belle Urban System simultaneously," he said. "Racine has some great places to visit, and the BUS will take you to all of them." BUS provides 94,000 hours of fixed-route service each year, covering some 1.2 million miles. Plus 180 door-t0-door trips per day for Dial-a-Ride's disabled passengers.
Revenue is down a bit this year, but ridership is up; this conundrum comes about because riders with monthly passes ($50; $25 for the disabled) are using them more often, Garner says. In any case, rider fares produce only $750,000 of the BUS's approximately $7 million annual budget. (That percentage is in line with other public transit systems around the country, he says.) Remaining operating funds come from the feds ($2 million), the state ($2 million) and local governments ($2 million). Most of the local money comes from the City of Racine, which provides $1.1 million, plus all the capital improvement money; Mt. Pleasant provides $175,000 a year, Caledonia, $33,000; Sturtevant, $53,000 and Yorkville, $6,000.
It is this geographic inequality of support that most hinders Garner's goal of establishing "a transit system that truly fits the new demographic of Racine County." By "new demographic," Garner means that all population growth is outside Racine's city limits: in Mt. Pleasant and Caledonia, and closer to the Interstate. "That's the area you want to serve," he says, estimating that the BUS could handle 3 million passengers with roughly the same 100 employees and 42 buses: two trolleys, seven paratransit vehicles and thirty-three 35' buses.
"I could design an ideal system, but the municipalities won't pay for it," Garner says. "A regional funding source would dissolve the artificial boundaries." He smiles, and stops, trying to avoid turning our conversation into one about commuter rail, regional transit and countywide taxation -- a subject for another day.
Garner and I go back outside to watch the set-up of the next shot, this one involving one of three new low-floor buses sitting in the Kentucky Street garage. They can't be used for passengers yet: none has a license plate or graphics on the side. Also on the way, four new hybrid buses. Someone brings out a director's chair, with a stuffed monkey sitting in it, and places it near the bus. No doubt, Alan Bagg of Corporate Images will move it before the cameras start rolling. Or maybe it's part of the Zoo storyboard; I'll have to check.
Shooting of the commercials will continue Saturday at the Zoo, the beach and downtown. If anyone gets a picture of that mermaid, be sure to pass it along to us...
UPDATE: Ask and ye shall receive! Corporate Images sent us pictures of both the mermaid and "Tarzan," as filmed for the commercials! And here they are: