October 16, 2009

The BUS: Ready for its closeup...

BUS executive director Curtis Garner


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.

Videographer Gary Alvarado with the commercials' detailed storyboard

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:

Whinter Andersson portrays our mermaid...

...while Ezequiel Gutierrez does his best Tarzan


  1. Dickert will not be on it. He's too busy with this secretary.

  2. Why was Dickert so rude at the last KRM meeting?

  3. Kingston Street garage??? Where is that at?

  4. Good management would work to satisfy a need not squander money to artificially create the use!

  5. Anon 4:40 Not Kingston, Kentucky. I had it right the first time, wrong the second.

  6. Losing money is a common thing for bureaucrats, losing more on a promotion is tacky.

  7. At a Racine County Board meeting last winter Curtis Garner told me that the only reason he was in favor of the KRM is because he would get a substancial portion of the money for the bus system out of it.

  8. 1.5 million riders for 1.2 million miles of service. That is slightly more than one rider per mile. Thank you for confirming my frequent though anecdotal observations.

  9. "rider fares produce only $750,000 of the BUS's approximately $7 million annual budget." This is what the anti-KRM people have been saying. We would have to subsidize a huge portion of the train. The article says that is normal for public transportation. Well in this economy we cannot afford normal.

  10. Who cares if KRM looses money? There will be a few politicians and their buddies that will become millionaires from land deals around KRM sites. Dickert is already marking a few State St. sites for himself, oops I mean for developers. Just another example of politicians screwing the taxpayer.

  11. Anon 10:42, in reality, that is not normal. All systems, worldwide, are supplemented in virtually every instance. What is "normal" is that in most cases the percent subsidized is lower than the percent of subsidy required for the KRM/bus system. That makes it even more of a loser. One of the considerations for this is because most systems are operating in much denser populated areas where there is a greater need for public transportation and a significantly higher quantity of ridership. The ridership for the KRM/bus system in Racine is almost nonexistent. I think we should rename this project to the Racine Transit Folly.

  12. The RTA will remove bus and KRM Line service costs from real-estate tax rolls and place them onto sales tax revenues. If you're a property owner, you should welcome that.

  13. Okay so we don't have as much to pay on property tax. Renters will have the cost passed on to them I guarantee that. But, Where will we shop? We already pay too much on retail sales tax. Penalizing people for shopping will just reduce buying. Then we are not generating the numbers of revenue that was predicted.

    For the plan to work the train has to be used by a majority of the people paying for it. We cannot build some high tech toy for a few who are going to work or play in Milwaukee or Chicago. Right now I don't see people giving up their cars and using public transportation as the norm. That is key to make the train and bus work.

  14. At the last KRM public meeting (The one that the mayor was so rude at) the panel said it would take at least 6 years 6 YEARS to get KRM done. Wow just think of the cost overruns think of the ways that a dishonest group of god old boys could buy land with dummy companies to make some big money.

    Well in less then two years Walker can put paid to KRM

  15. You expect roads to be built and maintained with tax dollars but you don't support public transportation?

    Makes no sense.

  16. The bus system is a vey important resourse for many individuals to get to work. If you want more unemployed people in Racine - then cut funding to the bus system. I for one do not use it, but it is essential for Racine.

  17. Let me know when Whinter Andersson is on the bus and I'll be there.

  18. Some comments on these responses are of absolutely no knowledge of what transportation is all about and the way costs are handled.
    But I do read a lot of selfishness.

    Buses and trains would be included in an RTA tax and your current bus cost would come off your property tax. Have certain folk led you to believe that an RTA will break you?
    It's absolute peanuts when you weigh the advantages of what it can do for our crumbling infra-structure and current state of affairs. Whether you ride them or not.

    Another thing: Amtrak has nothing to do with commuter rail. It's a whole different type of transportation.

    And by the way, I pay for many many things that I don't use in Racine County. I'm not rich, but it doesn't bother me at all. We are a diverse people with different needs. If one really gives a damn, quality of life should be a standard. Not no no no, 'til you can't catch up to what you refused to do.

  19. raise the quality of service, dont shoot commercials.