This story is the first in a series of stories about public transportation set to publish on centralcurrent.org this week. Reporters will be riding buses to collect perspectives on transportation in Central New York. Do you use public transportation and want to be part of the series? Email email@example.com.
The challenges Onondaga County residents who use public transportation face can be distilled to three questions, advocates for better transportation say:
- Does a bus show up where I am?
- Does it go where I need to go?
- How often does it come around?
Advocates say the answers to those questions fall short of Central New York needs. That’s the impetus behind a series this week by Central Current. Reporters will be riding buses and interviewing riders to put voices and faces to the problems with public transportation in the region.
Since Micron announced that it planned to invest $100 billion in Central New York in the fall, public transportation has received a renewed focus. Advocates and officials have publicly said public transportation will have to improve to make Micron a boon for the whole region.
Centro, the regional transportation authority, has committed to making bus rapid transit a reality by 2026. It also announced an outreach campaign in partnership with the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council aimed at reimagining its services.
While that’s in motion, however, residents still rely on buses that advocates say lack frequency and convenience.
Centro buses need to run more frequently, advocates say
Advocates say one of the most needed reforms to public transportation in Central New York is frequency.
Alex Lawson, a member of the progressive group Uplift Syracuse and the co-author of the organization’s transportation plan, said commuter routes have reasonable service during work rush hour but service quiets during the middle of the day.
“If you needed to go run somewhere or needed to be able to get home for an emergency, the service doesn’t really facilitate that,” Lawson said.
Service after 6:20 p.m. slows down significantly during the evenings, with buses running every 80 minutes even in Centro’s most popular lines, Lawson estimated.
SMTC, the region’s transportation planning organization,, recommended Centro develop bus rapid transit to increase frequency. The service would have two lines. One would go from Onondaga Community College to Eastwood along the South Avenue corridor. The other would go from Syracuse University to the North Side.
Central Current reported earlier this year Centro has ordered 82 buses that are set to arrive by the end of next year to make the service possible. Centro employs around 145 bus drivers now and needs about 200 to make bus rapid transit a reality.
To fully realize the SMTC’s plan, Centro officials have said they would need another $13 million on top of a $22 million allocation from Onondaga County for the implementation of the system. Funding for Centro comes mostly from state and local government, with only 22% of the service’s total revenue coming from fares. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, and former Republican Congressman John Katko also delivered $3 million in federal funds for BRT in December.
Centro plans to institute an on-demand bus service that would work similarly to a rideshare service in the next year.
Centro needs more drivers
Hiring more staff can prove complicated.
Centro drivers, based on state regulations, need to have a commercial driver’s license, which is typically needed to drive a tractor-trailer. Part of the tests needed to earn a CDL require drivers to know how to fix the engine of the bus.
“That’s just not a problem for Centro drivers,” Lawson said, noting drivers would call one of the service’s mechanics to provide assistance. “It is somewhat nonsensical and it is an extra barrier.”
Sharon Sherman, a member of the Moving People Transportation Coalition, said the service’s requirement of five years of licensed driving is another hurdle for prospective applicants. Sherman noted driving for Centro is a highly respectable job with good pay, but such requirements can limit the pool of applicants.
“That is an immediate barrier for someone who perhaps grew up in public housing, perhaps had limited access to education, and never got their license,” she said. “It’s sad. We can’t lift people out of poverty because they haven’t even driven for five years.”
Maurice Brown, a member of Uplift Syracuse, said governments could incentivize residents to go through the Centro training.
“If we know that public transportation is a priority, we’re going to fund it like that,” he said. “That might mean that we pay folks to take the training and that might mean we have to pay drivers more.”
Barry Lentz, a member of MPTC, said he believes funding for public transportation in New York State is a function of the state’s politics. Lentz argued New York City holds much of the state’s political power, which limits transportation funding for upstate communities.
Despite the renewed focus on public transportation in the last few months, Brown argued it needs to grab more attention locally.
“We need an aquarium-sized investment into public transportation,” Brown said.
Riders need more convenient routes
Sherman, who is also the executive director of the Greater Syracuse Tenants Network, said availability of bus service at some affordable housing developments can be spotty.
For example, residents at the Island Hollow town house and senior housing development in the town of Cicero would have to walk nearly three miles to catch the bus. .
“That is just not within acceptable walking distance for people trying to get somewhere,” Sherman said.
Sherman said Centro’s on-demand service could potentially serve at least some of the residents at Island Hollow. Drivers would pick up riders at agreed-upon centralized locations close to where they are and then drive to a specific destination. This service would not work on a fixed schedule.
Centro already offers a call-a-bus program that acts similarly to a rideshare service for people who cannot ride the regular Centro buses because of their disability.
For Brown, a lack of service exemplifies the approach developers in the region have followed for decades. Landmarks, projects with potential for economic development, and urban amenities, are planned without first accounting for transportation, Brown said.
With the arrival of Micron, he hopes county leaders and transportation officials can plan to have reliable transportation for the influx of workers that the microchip manufacturer will demand.
“We put Onondaga Community College out there, we put Micron out north, and then we try to figure out how to get people there,” he said. “We have been stuck with some of these decisions in the past. Going forward, we have to plan better.”
read more about transportation
Centro and SMTC want to better understand how they can serve Central New York with your help.
The expansion would allow Veo bikes to travel outside Syracuse and into Onondaga County.
Centro will present its plans for BRT to the Common Council on Tuesday.
BRT is expected to be implemented by 2026.
Syracuse can learn the importance of planning from Malta, a city down Interstate 90, that received a chip plant in 2009.