Centro at the Fair

1,279,010 people attended the 2018 New York State Fair. That’s a new record, and all those people trying to get to the same place made for some pretty bad traffic. 690 backed up for miles, and more than once the Fair ran completely out of parking spaces. Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney told people to use Centro’s park-and-ride service to avoid that headache.

A lot of people took the County Executive’s advice, drove to one of those park-n-ride spots, bought a two-way ticket, and rode the bus to the Fair. For many of those people, that was the one time of the year that they’ll see the inside of a Centro bus, and it’s a good opportunity to reflect on the state of public transportation in Syracuse.

First, it’s worth thinking on why so many people will ride the bus to get somewhere like the Fair (or the Amphitheater or an SU game), but so few people use Centro on a daily basis. Centro’s Fair service is more convenient than driving in all of that traffic on 690, and it’s easier than trying to park at the Fairgrounds themselves. The buses run frequently, it’s easy to get to the bus stop, and they let you off right where you need to be.

Try to take the bus to run any other errand, a lot of those benefits disappear. Most of Centro’s buses don’t come all that often, it can be difficult to get to the nearest bus stop, and the bus that stops there might not take you very near to where you’re going. That’s why so many people don’t even consider taking the bus most of the time.

But those people should remember that a lot of their neighbors have to put up with all that because the bus is their only legitimate option for getting around town. They have to deal with those same issues that scare so many people away from the bus, and they’d benefit from the same frequent reliable bus service that so many Fairgoers enjoy.

Second, it’s worth noting that Centro’s park-and-ride Fair service loses money. That might surprise some people who couldn’t find a seat on the bus at the end of the night, but it’s true. A bus going to the Fair at 11am on a Saturday might be full of people, but once it drops them off at the front gate, it’s going to turn around and run empty all the way back to its park-and-ride stop. That means that the service brings in money less than half the time that it’s running, and the Fair has to put up money to cover Centro’s costs.

That’s not a bad deal for the Fair, though, because those buses make it possible for so many more people to come through the front gates. Imagine if attendance was limited by the number of parking spaces right next to the fairgrounds. The Fair might lose money on the bus service itself, but it benefits from having so many extra people pay admission, buy food, and spend money at the midway.

It’s the same with public transportation every other day of the year. Centro can’t run its regular service with just the money it brings in from fares, so City Hall, Onondaga County, New York State, and the Federal Government all chip in to keep the buses running in Syracuse. That money ensures that all kinds of people can get to work, can get to school, can get to the grocery store. It gives businesses access to more potential employees, and it lets shops market to more potential customers. When government pays into Centro’s budget, it makes all of Syracuse richer.

It’s easy to forget all this. It’s easy not to think about the daily challenges that bus riders face in Syracuse, and it’s easy to ignore the fact that Centro is a necessary part of the City’s economy. So for everyone who rode a bus to the Fair, take this opportunity to remember all that. Think about the people who ride the buses the rest of the year, and keep them in mind the next time you vote.