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New transit buses may fit in tighter budget

Federal money could help in adding two vehicles

POSTED: May 2, 2009 11:51 p.m.
TOM REED/The Times

Red Rabbit transit buses pull into the transfer station on Main Street. Despite budget cuts, Hall Area Transit is hoping to expand services and buy new buses.

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Hall Area Transit officials want to live up to the Red Rabbit’s name and multiply the bus service’s brood.

While most government agencies have been forced to cut their services this year, the transit agency hopes to purchase four new buses and add a route on Atlanta Highway.

The expansion would be funded mainly with federal grant money, but hinges on the financial support of Gainesville and Hall County governments.

New equipment — much less four new vehicles — is scarce in Gainesville’s proposed 2010 budget. Many city departments have cut capital purchases in an effort to cobble together spending plans with dwindling funds.

But Phillippa Lewis Moss, director of the Community Service Center, said the agency’s plans to expand still meet the Gainesville City Council’s need for a smaller budget.

The agency submitted a proposed budget for 2010 Thursday that is 12 percent smaller than the current year’s spending plan.

“You reduce your budget and you still get some benefits,” Moss told the Gainesville City Council on Thursday.

The agency’s proposed expansion would put two buses on a new route on Atlanta Highway and add extra buses to the overloaded Gold and Blue routes.

Increased use has strained the agency’s two most popular routes. As many as 200 riders use the Gold route each day, Crowe said.

The Blue route, which travels by Walmart, also is heavily used.

“The Blue route desperately runs late, because the ridership’s high and it’s just too far for it to make it,” Crowe said.

Overall, the growth in the number of people who use the transit service nearly doubled between 2007 and 2008.

In 2007, riders took 56,295 trips on the service. But when gas prices rose above $4 in 2008, residents took 106,279 trips by the end of the year, Crowe said.

Even as fuel prices leveled off, ridership remained high in the first three months of 2009. In March, the service carried 2,500 more customers than it did in March 2008, Crowe said.

Hall Area Transit Director Janice Crowe said the needed expansion would be funded mostly by federal dollars, but is dependent on financial contributions from both the city and county. The federal funds, approximately $500,000 from the Federal Transportation Administration, initially would require a local match of $61,883 from each government.

Operation costs later would be shared by the two governments, which will both decide whether to fund the expansion by mid-June.

Moss said she understands that, with a $750,000 gap between expenses and revenues, Gainesville could use the extra $62,000 this year.

But she said the window of opportunity for expansion — and the federal funding that would support it — will be gone by next fiscal year.

“I just want to give you something to ponder,” Moss told the council Thursday.

Aside from the now-or-never scenario, Moss said the agency should also be prepared to serve residents who may find themselves without a personal vehicle as the recession drags on.

“Our transit system is not fully developed, so that in times of crisis we’re not able to serve our residents fully,” she said.

Without the expansion, Moss said, Gainesville will lose the opportunity to serve its residents at a low point in the economy. That statement struck a chord with Gainesville Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Bruner and Mayor Myrtle Figueras.

Bruner said that although she had not fully researched the pros and cons of the agency’s plan to expand, the idea to continue developing a full transit route in Hall County sounded good initially.

“To me, it would be short-sighted to pass it up,” Bruner said.

Bruner liked the idea of finding a way to help connect people to employment and education opportunities during the time they need it most, especially when those opportunities are spread across the county.

“This is the time to reach out to the community as much as we can,” Bruner said.



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