Leonard Robinson has just enough money in his pocket for bus fare home and maybe a beer.

On disability because of a medical condition, Robinson relies on $539 he gets at the end of each month and said he was homeless until a week ago. That’s when a landlord said he could have an empty apartment on a trial basis.

Robinson said WAVE transit helps him get around downtown because he doesn’t have a driver’s license and wouldn’t be able to afford a car, even if he could legally drive.

“I use the bus to keep from having to do a whole lot of walking,” he said. “I’ll get food, see a friend and go back home.”

For Robinson, Mobile’s bus system is vital for transportation. It is a service that provided about 1.2 million trips last year, but that breaks down to just over 3,500 trips on the WAVE each day. The vast majority — 80 to 85 percent — use it for travel to and from work each day, so many of those trips would likely be by round-trip passengers, meaning the actual number of people relying on WAVE may be less than 2,000. No exact number for users was available. Paul Wesch, Executive Director of Finances for the city estimated the number at about 1,750, although that was based upon 1 million trips. Even at 2,000 daily riders, less than 1 percent of the 223,000 people in the WAVE’s ridership area are taking the bus.

Recent reports indicate WAVE, which is managed by a third-party contractor called McDonald Transit, costs roughly $10 million to operate, with Mobile paying the lion’s share of that bill.

The city funds 60 percent of the system, with the Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Authority chipping in another 30 percent and fares making up the other 10 percent of the roughly $10 million in operating expenses.

Riders board the WAVE

Riders board the WAVE

Wesch said the city is looking to other comparable municipalities in the state to research how to save money on the system, but has yet to make a recommendation.

“We have begun to review where we are in comparison to cities and counties our size,” he said. “We want to take advantage of any efficiencies we can. There are probably some things we are doing well and some things we could do better.”

Wesch said the administration has looked at two similarly sized systems, in Montgomery and Huntsville. He said each system requires nearly a third of the local funds that WAVE does to operate. He said Montgomery chips in about $2.3 million a year for the Montgomery Area Transportation System and Huntsville pays about $2 million.

Amy Bernstein, a DOT spokeswoman, cautioned in an email message Monday that comparing transit systems in different cities was like comparing apples and oranges “as no two are alike in terms of terrain, alignment, scope, service, etc.”

Wesch complimented McDonald, which has had a contract to manage the WAVE system for the last two decades. He said they can only do what the city tells them and need to be given direction. Some changes are on the way, but Wesch could not speculate on what they might be.

As the line operates now, WAVE has six routes that cross Mobile city limits into Prichard, Chickasaw and Mobile County. Wesch said the city doesn’t receive funds from either city or the county for service. In all, three routes go into Prichard, two go into the county and one goes into Chickasaw, WAVE General Manager Tyrone Parker wrote in an email. The system has 14 fixed routes.

Although it has hovered around 1 million, the number of boardings on WAVE has increased each year since fiscal year 2011, Parker wrote. In 2011, WAVE had 1,079,223 boardings. In 2012, the system had 1,091,135 and in 2013 it had 1,280,848. WAVE generated $1,115,895 in revenue during fiscal year 2013, Parker wrote. Total boardings are the culmination of all uses.

A base fare for a regular passenger is $1.25 per passenger and transfers are 10 cents. A round trip will cost $2.70. Senior, or disabled riders pay 60 cents per trip, or $1.40 for roundtrip. Students pay 75 cents per trip, or $1.70 for roundtrip.

Jessica Rounsavall got tired of relying on friends to give her rides and has been a regular WAVE customer for the past six months.

“It gets me everywhere I need to go,” she said. “I take it every day, or at least every other day.”

Numbers provided by DOT compare systems in Montgomery and Mobile

Mobile’s WAVE transit in 2013
117-mile service area
8.4 million annual passenger miles
4,824 average weekday
unlinked trips
2,488 average Saturday
unlinked trips
23 buses
28 demand response vehicles
$6.5 million in salaries, wages, benefits, materials and supplies
$9.8 million in operating expenses
$5.9 million in local funds
$2.8 million in federal assistance

Montgomery’s MATS in 2013
135-mile service area
4.5 million annual passenger miles
3,504 average weekday unlinked trips
1,348 average Saturday unlinked trips
21 buses
8 demand response vehicles
$4.2 million in salaries, wages, benefits, materials and supplies
$6.9 million in operating expenses
$3 million in local funds
$2.5 million in federal assistance