Ridership on new Sun Shuttle circulator buses in the Northwest "is catching on" along some routes, and lagging on others, according to Regional Transportation Authority officials.

The service was free for the first 30 days after it began in May. Ridership grew that month, then fell back in June, when a $1 fee was applied.

Total ridership on eight Sun Shuttle bus routes, including several in the Northwest, has ranged from as few as 17 riders on May 7 to as many as 169 riders on May 29.

"We have some expectations as to what we think a successful service is," said Jim DeGrood, director of transportation services for RTA. "We're not there yet."

Meanwhile, ridership on two Sun Tran Express commuter routes between Oro Valley and downtown Tucson, and Oro Valley and the Aero Park that includes major employer Raytheon, had no fewer than 1,142 passenger trips a month in its first two months of operation, according to Sun Tran statistics.

"The Express routes are increasing in ridership," RTA executive director Gary Hayes said in May, particularly as fuel prices have risen.

Both the in-town circulator service and the commuter bus runs are funded through RTA, the sales tax-funded transportation and road improvement authority approved by Pima County voters just over three years ago.

"It's a brand new service," RTA communications director Sheila Storm said, and it's early to draw conclusions about public reception.

"We are collectively looking at the routes to see what is a reasonable utilization," DeGrood said.

"Whatever way we can get feedback, we're looking for," Hayes said. "If ridership declines, we've got the flexibility to adjust." In a letter to the editor, Hayes said RTA is "prepared to prune services that are not successful, but we need to give them every opportunity to succeed."

New Sun Shuttle circulator routes operate along the Cortaro / Silverbell corridor, along Thornydale into Dove Mountain between the Ritz Carlton Dove Mountain Resort and Costco, along North Oracle from Ina eventually into Catalina, and along both Rancho Vistoso and La Cañada in Oro Valley.

The 30-day free ride trial on circulator routes was intended in part to "get an indication of ridership and routing," Hayes said. "The Sun Shuttle service was deliberately started during the summer to work out the issues that invariably occur with any new service, before school resumes and winter residents return," Hayes said in his letter to the editor.

In June, "ridership dropped off on most routes once we began charging for rides, but started climbing again," DeGrood said. In his view, the best-performing routes are the Oracle Road, Dove Mountain / Thornydale and Green Valley Connector routes.

Eventual ridership on the local connector bus routes is "going to be driven in a couple ways," Hayes said. Marketing and advertising are fundamental. Reaching specific populations — teens, as an example — is important. The price of gasoline is a factor, too.

"What's really key is the predictability of schedule," DeGrood said. "There is a basic minimum standard out there so people can consider the system reliable."

That's why the commuter routes, as examples, have three different buses in each direction each day, Hayes said. The first two are "really heavily used," and the third gives the rider some confidence that they'll be able to catch a bus if they miss an earlier run.

"The issue is creating a mindset of confidence," said Hayes, who's started riding Sun Express himself once a week between his home and his office in downtown Tucson. "It's like a coffee klatch."

The bigger picture, Hayes said, is the creation of a "seamless regional transit system," with proper routing, pricing and technology used so people can go from nearly from their doorsteps to any location in greater Tucson on mass transit.

Soon, RTA expects to be able "to provide free transfers to Sun Tran" from Sun Shuttle, which will allow Northwest residents "access to the entire Sun Tran system," Hayes said. "We need to create that connection opportunity."

One proposed routing change would give "reverse commute access" into Oro Valley Hospital, Oro Valley Marketplace and the biotechnology industries along Innovation Park Drive, Hayes wrote.

Within the $2.1-billion RTA plan, "more than $500 million … is committed to transit," Hayes said. "Look at public transit as a utility. We view it as a public utility."

Commuter express route ridership, April and May

April (22 days of service)

Route 107X, Oro Valley-Downtown Express:

1,397 passenger trips

Route 203X, Oro Valley-Aero Park Express:

1,314 passenger trips

May 2009 (20 days of service)

Route 107X:

1,367 passenger trips

Route 203X:

1,142 passenger trips

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