WINCHESTER — When Kevin and Shirley LaBona moved to Winchester from the Chicago area in 2008, they didn't bother to bring a car.
"We figured in Winchester we could walk everywhere," Kevin LaBona recalls.
But on a trip to Wal-Mart one day, the couple decided to try out the Winchester-Clark County Transit service. That's when they fell in love with the local bus system, LaBona said.
"It's tremendously convenient and a dollar a day. You just can't beat that price," he said.
The LaBonas are among a number of riders who have patronized the new bus route, which recently completed its first year of operation.
According to Foothills Community Action Partnership, a Richmond-based non-profit that runs the service, local buses have provided more than 8,000 rides since the program launched in October 2008. That's an average of more than 600 riders each month.
Local leaders have been pointing to the ridership trends lately as evidence that the new service has proven successful.
"It shows that our community as a whole is trying to help a population that would seek to ride the bus, whether they would have to or whether they would choose to," Clark County Judge-Executive Henry Branham said. "We as a community have made that choice, the conscious choice to provide that service to increase quality of life."
The service is provided through a partnership between the Winchester Board of Commissioners, the Clark County Fiscal Court and Foothills Community Action Partnership.
Last summer, city and county officials agreed to split a monthly subsidy of about $4,750 to help fund the program. U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, also helped secure funding to purchase a bus.
Since it opened, monthly ridership has never dipped below 468. It peaked in July 2009, providing 879 rides.
"The transit was well-received in Winchester and Clark County," Melissa Gross, Foothills program developer, said. "There was an acceptance of the bus service right away."
Gross said ridership includes a diverse group. Many riders use the bus to travel to work or school, and older riders travel in the middle of the day for shopping, doctors visits and social engagements, she said.
Tickets cost $1, or riders can buy a book of 10 for $7. Passes are good for a full day.
The routes, which run six times a day, include 27 stops, ranging from Community Services to Bluegrass Community and Technical College, and riders can add a stop by calling Foothills 24 hours in advance.
The most popular stops are Wal-Mart, Kroger Plaza, the Brown Proctor Apartments and the Clark County Library.
LaBona said he and his wife ride about four times each week and enjoy the friendliness of the drivers.
While they use the bus for shopping or trips to the doctor's office and library, LaBona said the couple also ride the bus just to get out of the house.
"Basically, anything we need," he said.
Over the last year, some have criticized the service, arguing it is an expensive luxury that rarely gets used. However, officials have said ridership numbers refute those claims.
Mayor Ed Burtner said providing the service particularly helps low-income residents.
"I think it has a beneficial effect for those individuals in the community who do not have transportation and have perhaps had to rely upon friends or some other means of getting around," he said.
A similar bus service also began in Winchester in September 2008, transporting commuters from Wal-Mart to several stops in Lexington.
Branham worked with Foothills to organize the commuter routes over several months in 2008 after residents complained of the high cost of traveling to workplaces in Lexington. According to Foothills, 30 to 35 people each day use the service.