A Madison Metro bus pulls up in front of the U.S. Bank Plaza on Pinckney Street early Monday morning. The hissing of brakes wakes up a homeless guy who was sleeping inside the bus shelter on a bench.
The driver steps off to stretch when four backpack-toting 20-somethings come from out of nowhere to board the vessel. Their destination: Epic Systems in Verona.
At 6:40 a.m. the bus — the second of four runs to Epic each morning — leaves for the next stop, around the corner on Mifflin, where six more people board. Each stop seems to have more riders than the last.
As is the case most weekdays, it will be standing room only on Route 75 by the time it arrives, moments later, at West Washington and Bedford.
“[Route 75] service began just a few years ago, and since then we’ve added and added and added to it,” says Metro general manager Chuck Kamp.
Last year, 80,172 people rode route 75, up from 53,964 in 2013. The route, which launched in 2012, is one of two routes servicing Epic and Verona. The other, Route 55, launched in 2005, and runs during peak hours from the West Transfer Point to Epic.
Says Kamp: “Epic has told us they want more services, and we’re telling them, ‘We’re sorry, but we can’t do that right now.’”
It’s one of many growing routes for Madison Metro, which saw ridership climb to 15 million last year. But for now, Metro is unable to add more routes to accommodate Epic. Both its bus fleet and garage are too small.
“The garage over here was originally designed for 160-some buses; right now we’ve got 214,” says Drew Beck, a planning and scheduling manager for Metro. “We are out of space.”
An Epic spokesman declined to comment about what bus services the company would like. Epic employees were equally mum on the topic. One rider said talking to the press would “complicate the working environment.”
But it’s hard to imagine anyone among Epic’s brain trust likes standing for a half hour on the bus. It’s a concern for Metro too, since public transit is more of an option than a necessity for these young professionals with disposable income.
“To have to stand for 35 minutes rather than sit down and start working on the computer or iPad and ride comfortably becomes an unattractive transportation option for an Epic employee,” Kamp says.
The controversial Google buses in San Francisco are private charters and are not open to the public. Although Madison Metro routes 75 and 55 exist because of Epic, any paying customer can ride.
Metro is contemplating bringing Epic into the upcoming Bus Rapid Transit system, which will use 60-foot articulated buses on express routes like the 75 to alleviate rider congestion throughout the transit system.
This, too, hinges on finding a place to keep the buses.
Says Kamp: “I tell people I would rather have this problem than those communities that are cutting service, but it is still a problem we’ve got to address.”