Public transportation a wise use of taxpayer dollars
by Emily McLain
Jan 12, 2014 | 1646 views |  0 comments | 24 24 recommendations | email to a friend | print
You pass them on the road every day. They’re heading to a doctor appointment, stopping by the grocery store, or picking someone up from work.

Public transportation buses are staying busy throughout Talladega and St. Clair counties, and according to directors of the various programs, they are a wise and worthy use of taxpayer dollars.

“There are a lot of people who rely on us, who would not have a means to get anywhere otherwise,” said Janet Smith, director of St. Clair County’s transportation program. “Some people, I literally don’t know what they would do without us. We take them to pay bills, shop, go to the doctor, visit friends. I don’t see what they did before we came along.”

Bill Roberts of Sylacauga was one of those people for two years and now takes it upon himself to promote Sylacauga’s program whenever possible.

“When I was in my wheelchair, insurance would buy a power chair but not a lift to go with it, so I didn’t have a way of going anywhere, and city transportation took me everywhere I went,” said Roberts, who has multiple sclerosis that confined him to a wheelchair from 2003 through 2005. “At a time when I felt like I wasn’t very useful, they helped me change that because I was able to go places.”

Roberts rode the handicap-accessible transit to Walmart, to Home Depot, to local nursing homes to visit with elderly, even to his medical appointments in Birmingham during the program’s once-a-month trip.

“Without that service, I would probably be more nuts than I am now,” he said. “It saved my life. It gave me my life back, and I loved that the people there always treated me with respect and dignity. It really made a huge difference for me, so anybody who is having a hard time getting around, I’m the first to tell them about city transportation, because it’s great.”

With fares typically at $1 a ride for seniors and disabled and $2 a ride for others, public transportation is often a better alternative to owning a vehicle, said Margaret Morton, director of SAFE Family Services Center, which contracts with the City of Sylacauga to oversee its program.

“A lot of people don’t have their own vehicles, and if they did, they couldn’t afford to put gas in them,” she said. “This is a service for individuals who otherwise would not get where they need to go if they did not have a reduced-rate transportation program. If they are single, disabled, unemployed, working toward employment, or employed and 150 percent of poverty, or even the general public, this is for them.”

Programs in Talladega, Sylacauga, Childersburg, Oak Grove and St. Clair County vary in size and budgets, but each of them provides hundreds or thousands of rides each month. For example, Sylacauga’s eight buses make about 3,500 trips a month, St. Clair County’s 12 buses make roughly 3,000, and Talladega’s two buses averages 475 to 550.

“This program is needed and it is used,” said Sylacauga’s transportation supervisor Jerry Brown. “We transport about 3,500 people per month. That’s a lot of people and a lot of mileage.”

Each program is partially funded by the Federal Transit Administration’s 5311 program for rural areas with populations of less than 50,000. A local match of 50 percent for operations and at least 20 percent for administrative and capital expenses is required, according to FTA’s website. Sylacauga and St. Clair County programs also receive the FTA’s Job Access and Reverse Commute grant that allows free job-related transportation for those who qualify.

In Talladega County, each municipality’s program is administered by East Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission, while St. Clair County operates its program directly.

According to Shane Christian, project administrator of transportation for EARPDC, the estimated grants plus the local match for each Talladega County program equals $105,500 for Childersburg, $100,000 for Oak Grove, $124,000 for Sylacauga, and $88,000 for Talladega. St. Clair County’s budget totals roughly $311,000, not including the local match, Smith said.

All programs provide demand-response service, meaning riders schedule a time and place to be picked up at least 24 hours in advance, rather than operating bus stops, which are not allowed by the 5311 program. In general, program directors agree demand-response is the most effective way to operate in smaller towns, but there can be a down side.

“We’re more flexible to go within the client’s time frame,” said Talladega City Clerk Beth Cheeks. “But that in itself makes the program relatively inefficient. You can’t group a lot of people together to fill a bus each time, but it’s out there to serve as many people as possible.”

Programs are held to an efficiency standard by the Alabama Department of Transportation, Christian said, which requires a 20 percent return in fares on every dollar spent on operations. For the third quarter of 2013, Christian said the return rate for the county’s programs was 97 cents on the dollar in Sylacauga, 44 cents in Childersburg, 12 cents in Oak Grove and 9 cents in Talladega. Smith said St. Clair County does not calculate return rates.

During the first three quarters of 2013, Morton said Sylacauga averaged a return of $1.08 in fare box collections on every dollar spent for operations.

“To have a recovery rate like this, you will see that there are not a lot of public transportation programs across the U.S. at this kind of recovery rate,” Morton said. “And we’re not saying this program breaks even, because it doesn’t. But we are saying that for the money that’s put into the program we are recovering, and all of that goes directly back into the program.”

Last year, Sylacauga generated $96,000 in fare collections, compared to the $2,500 it earned 10 years ago. Likewise, St. Clair County said its service has double since its start five years ago, in part thanks to contracts with The Arc and Middle Alabama Area Agency on Aging. Even throughout the six-county area that EARDPC serves, Christian said transportation programs have grown tremendously in the 14 years he was worked with them.

“I have seen ridership double, and it’s grown in the number of vehicles, passengers served, all of those things,” he said. “They’re very efficient; they do a very god job, provide wonderful coverage to the citizenry there and provide an excellent service.”

Along with the service they provide to citizens, Smith said public transportation boosts the local economy as well.

“We’ve generated dollars because we bring people from other places, from all over the county, to come here to shop and spend their money,” she said. “Just taking care of public speaks for itself, and then we generate business by bringing people into Pell City mostly. They could choose to go anywhere, but if we make it easy and accessible, then they will come here. And we’re not in it to make a profit or to grow this into a monster of an operation; we’re just here for the public, and we see it with our eyes every day that we’re making a difference.”

Roberts encourages more people to take advantage of public buses.

“It’s an invaluable service,” he said. “It’s used enough that you have to make an appointment, but even still, I don’t think enough people make use of it. I can’t say enough about the good it did for me.”

Contacts for area transportation services are as follows:

Talladega – 256-362-0514

Sylacauga – 256-249-9085

Childersburg – 256-378-7037

Oak Grove – 256-249-2800

St. Clair County – 205-338-1352

Contact Emily McLain at eadams@dailyhome.com.