Gordon and Ron Comer said at a work session two weeks ago that the public buses, operated by SAFE Family Services Center through a contract with the city, provide demand-response pickup when they are only authorized to perform pickups with 24-hours notice. The council asked them to come back at Monday’s meeting, where SAFE Director Margaret Morton and Shane Christian, public transportation administrator with East Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission, were on hand to address their concerns.
Gordon Comer said buses frequently solicit business and on some occasions when a cab driver responds to a call, the customer has already gotten on the public bus when they arrive.
Christian said the rural transit system, which is funded 50/50 with federal and local money, “does allow for what we would consider same-day service, such that your scheduled pick-up and returns are not interfered with in any way.”
Morton said their goal is zero percent denials. “We request a day’s notice; however, we do have the prerogative, based on the policies and procedures that I’ve provided to the council and the mayor, we do have the option, if we have the resources available that day, to pick somebody up and take them where they need to go and bring them back,” she said.
Gordon Comer repeatedly asked questions about how they knew what buses picked up and dropped off, when the program changed from city ownership and why his company did not receive a bid to be part of the program, like Anniston Limo did in Calhoun County.
Christian explained that riders on all eight city buses are recorded in detailed activity logs, and that the program was not bid because it is operated between two government agencies, which in this case are EARPDC and the city. The city has run the program since at least the ‘70s and has contracted with SAFE to administer it since 2002.
Ron Comer expressed dissatisfaction with the program’s efficiency.
“So basically, you’re running a government-funded transportation that we’re competing with, and our tax dollars are buying the gas to run - how many buses do you have in your fleet? And 90 to 95 percent of the time, there’s nobody or one person in them? I see them. I’m out all day long. That is extremely inefficient.”
Christian and Morton said the program is highly efficient, and there are cost analysis reports to support that claim.
Council President Rocky Lucas said the city doesn’t always make money on services it provides. “We’re not in it for profit; we’re in it for a service,” he said.
About 30 minutes into the discussion, Councilman Tom Roberts said a point being left out was that “a lot of the people who call for the SAFE transportation program probably wouldn’t have called (a cab) because they can’t afford it.” A cab ride is $2 per mile plus a $2 pickup charge, while public transportation is $2 per ride for a regular individual, $1 for seniors or disabled, and free for those who qualify for job-related transportation.
Ron Comer said a lot of people ride both ways and some who take public transportation may not deserve it, comparing it to the misuse of food stamps.
“I’m saying that’s why this program was put in place,” Roberts said. “To provide transportation for people who otherwise couldn’t afford to buy a vehicle or get to where they needed to go.”
Christian said he can pass the Comers’ concerns onto the state Department of Transportation or the Federal Transit Administration, “but the fact is we’re not in competition with private industry. We’re providing a service to the citizens of Sylacauga. Again, under East Alabama, we have transportation in six counties. Throughout the state we have almost 30 counterparts that cover the vast majority of the state of Alabama. This is a nationwide program that’s been in place for decades.”
Gordon Comer said he “just (doesn’t) see how it’s fair” that he has to buy a business license and pay for his own gas to provide the same service as the city.
“It’s the city’s decision to continue on,” Christian said. “We feel like the program provides needed transportation for the city’s citizens and are happy to work with any entity to work out any concerns they have, if we can have a constructive conversation and not speak only of who pays for the gas…I think we’ve answered your questions as best we possibly can. We’re providing a service to the citizens.”
“So are we,” Ron Comer said. “It’s up to the city to decide how to spend taxpayer dollars, but I encourage you all to look at how many people are in the vans at any given time.”
Contact Emily Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org.