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Nearly 90,000 free trips on Mountain Line’s Don Knotts route in 2023

MORGANTOWN — Without an agreement in place by the June 30 end of the fiscal year, free rides on Mountain Line’s Don Knotts route will end and the normal 75-cent fare will be reinstated. 

The service has been provided without charge since September 2021 to provide better access for individuals needing to utilize the social services within Hazel’s House of Hope, on Scott Avenue.  

The route travels from Mountain Line’s Westover hub to downtown Morgantown, then out to Scott Avenue, then Hornbeck Road Walmart and back. 

Rides are being provided without charge thanks to an agreement between Mountain Line and Morgantown Community Resources, the nonprofit board that serves as facilitator and landlord for the Hazel’s House of Hope property. 

Mountain Line General Manager Maria Smith explained everybody on that route rides free, regardless of destination. 

“The challenge [MCR] had was getting the fare to the people. Many of them didn’t want to register and give their information to get a pass, so we had no way of transferring that value to those individuals,” she said. “So, we did it in reverse, where that contract subsidizes ridership on that route. Anyone who boards, we mark that trip and that 75 cents comes out of the Morgantown Community Resources subsidy.”  

Based on the numbers, it’s been effective. 

Since free ridership was implemented, the number of trips provided has essentially doubled year over year. 

In 2021, 22,412 trips were provided — 9,506 of which came in the four months after the 75-cent fare was eliminated.  

In 2022, that number jumped to 45,744. 

It nearly doubled again in 2023, with 87,442 trips provided. 

But the more it’s used, the more it costs. Mountain Line sets the cost off the previous year’s ride totals. 

Smith said the transit authority charged $25,000 the first year based off the route’s historic ride data. A group of contributors including the city of Morgantown and Monongalia County came together to cover the cost.

MCR was able to obtain a grant late in 2023 to cover the $34,428 for this year (45,744 rides in 2022 x 75 cents). If the service is to remain in effect past June, someone is going to have to come up with $65,646. 

Smith said she began raising the issue in early March. 

Transit Authority President Jenny Dinsmore explained Mountain Line provided free rides on faith for months in the second half of 2023 until MCR came up with grant dollars. 

“We’re not going to do that again,” she said. 

Smith explained why. 

“If nothing materializes, we wouldn’t have anything to pay for that. It would just be a loss of fare for us, so we would be losing money when we shouldn’t be,” Smith said, explaining it would also be unfair to the other entities with which Mountain Line maintains service contracts. 

One of the potential solutions that’s been floated during recent Morgantown City Council meetings is earmarking a portion of the city’s $356,500 allocation to Mountain Line to cover this cost.

That would still be a net loss for Mountain Line as the city’s allocation provides operational support for multiple bus routes. 

“If the city wanted to use these funds for subsidizing the fares on Don Knotts, then we would need to find a new funding source to replace those funds or cut service,” Smith said. 

She went on to explain the 75-cent fare, regardless of who pays it, doesn’t nearly cover the full cost of bus service. The route in question costs $343,827 annually to operate. 

“The real cost to ride Don Knotts is probably closer to $5 a trip,” Smith said.  

Morgantown City Councilor Danielle Trumble, who represents the city on the MCR Board of Directors, began raising the issue with city council in early March. 

“We need to do what we can to make sure that stays free to riders. That’s a key component of services at Hazel’s House Hope, but it’s used by many more riders than just people who reside or utilize services at H3,” she said. 

Smith said she too believes the service is extremely important. 

“I think the whole community’s intent is to continue it. It’s just a matter of finding funding for it,” she said.

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