Vineyard Transit Authority is on the verge of a new summer season, and still sorting out problems associated with its new fare boxes.

The authority will be looking to match last summer's ridership - a total of 554,185 "boardings" from July 1 to Sept. 1. A "boarding" represents each time a passenger steps on a bus; the 2002 number, authority officials said, was down slightly from 2001 in part because new express services had eliminated some need for transfers.

With the help of a 25 per cent fare increase, passenger fare revenues last summer jumped 26 percent over the year before, from $470,830 to $594,801, according to revenue statements provided by the Transit Authority.

Angie Gompert, VTA administrator, attributes the increase in revenues both to the fare hike and to the electronic fare boxes, which, she said, "make people pay the right fare.

"We had people who perpetually put in the wrong fare," said Ms. Gompert.

Under the old fare box system, the burden was on the bus drivers to count the fare - a difficult task when many people are boarding. Another flaw, according to Ms. Gompert, was that people would use expired bus cards. Now the cards have to be swiped through an electronic reading system.

But whether the fare boxes are worth their trouble remains to be determined.

Ridership figures still are not available after September, and Ms. Gompert says that is due to software failures in the widely-touted boxes. Numbers that were expected to be crunched by the touch of a few buttons have had to be manually figured.

"We had some software glitches. It was a new system for us. Supposedly, the manufacturer wasn't used to a transit system that offered multi-day passes," said Ms. Gompert. "We had to upgrade some of the hardware within the fare boxes and they had to do some reprogramming."

Ms. Gompert said she is hopeful that the fare-box tabulation of ridership numbers will improve this summer. Eventually ridership numbers for last July to September were computed manually.

The 6 per cent decrease in boardings or ridership, according to Ms. Gompert, is due to consolidation of up-Island routes.

"Pretty much most of it was in the up-Island numbers, the 3, 4, 5, 6 [routes]. Fewer passengers had to transfer so there were fewer boardings," she said. "Aquinnah to Vineyard Haven was direct last year and Edgartown to Menemsha was direct last year."

Routes 3, 4, 5 and 6 showed 25,570 fewer boardings from July to September, compared to a 6,817 combined drop for the remaining nine routes.

Overall 554,185 Islanders and summer visitors had boarded the VTA's fleet of 24 buses by the end of September, down from the prior year's 586,572.

The most popular route continued to be Route 13, carrying passengers along Beach Road between Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs and Edgartown. Some 132,300 passengers traveled Route 13 in August alone. Route 1 along the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road was the next most popular, drawing 35,177 folks.

The VTA's summer schedule for this year is now out.

One change is in West Tisbury; down-Island bound buses will now pick up and discharge passengers across the street from Alley's.

"One of the things that was a difficulty last year was the bus returning from Aquinnah would stop and take a sharp left into town hall yard ... This time there will be no sharp left into town hall, which often-times backed up traffic. That bus will go right on down the street and stop opposite Alley's ... It will only be for down-Island traffic," said John Alley, a VTA board member.

Another step taken to alleviate congestion at the town hall stop was to make the Edgartown-Aquinnah route a direct trip. In prior years, Aquinnah-bound passengers on the Route 6 bus had to transfer in West Tisbury.

"The numbers showed that most everybody that took the Number 6 bus was on their way to Aquinnah," said Mr. Alley.

From now until May 10 when the full spring schedule starts, VTA officials will scramble to prepare for the onslaught of summer visitors.

Darren Morris, general manager of Transit Connection, which operates the buses, said he was hiring 40 to 50 full- and part-time drivers for the summer.

"We are training new drivers. We are talking to people who we had last year and pinning down our returnees," he said. Mr. Morris is looking to the University of Massachusetts and Bridgewater for drivers.

"We brought some Bulgarian college students over last year and we are planning on having some of them return this year. They're still involved in the visa process," he said.

"It really comes down to retaining drivers because we spend so much time training. To get a license and get them trained for this system is anywhere between 40 and 60 hours of training," he said.