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Funding for Hall transit buses falls short of demand

Money is not available to expand hours, stops, officials say

POSTED: March 17, 2013 12:28 a.m.

Elizabeth Morton uses the local Red Rabbit buses from Hall County Transit to do her grocery shopping and go to doctor appointments during the week. But after 5 p.m. and on weekends, she’s stuck because she can’t drive a car, even if she could afford one.

Morton is disabled and one of many residents who depend on public transportation. Bus service expansion was one need identified by local nonprofit agencies at a housing summit recently hosted by the Gainesville Housing program, part of the city’s Community Development Department.

Residents who use the bus system and agencies that work with clients such as Morton have asked for Hall County Transit to increase the hours and days of the Red Rabbit system. But the department doesn’t have funding to make it a reality.

“It’s a very common request,” said Phillippa Lewis Moss, director of the Gainesville-Hall Community Service Center, which oversees the bus system along with providing education and senior services. “I hear it about a half a dozen times a month.”

Bus service is based on funding, density, ridership and safety, Moss said. Hall County Transit offers two main services, Red Rabbit and Dial-A-Ride. Red Rabbit has seven fixed bus routes and more than 200 bus stops, mostly in Gainesville, with some stops farther out, including down Atlanta Highway to the University of North Georgia-Gainesville campus in Oakwood.

The service doesn’t go past Oakwood, but may reach Flowery Branch in the future as it develops into a more commercial area, Moss said.

Adult fares are $1.25, youth prices $1 and seniors and disabled passengers ride for 60 cents. The buses run 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Dial-A-Ride is a curbside service that requires advance 48-hour reservations. Fares start at $2 and increases with each additional mile.

The Hall County Board of Commissioners raised prices effective August 2012. Moss said the rate hikes were a big deal to passengers since the money spent on the service can be a significant portion of their income.

“It was a big hit for them,” she said.

The federal government pays 50 percent of transit operating costs, and Hall County and Gainesville split the other half. Moss’ overall budget for the center is about 70 percent state and federal funds and about 30 percent local support from the county and Gainesville.

“We’re left to make decisions with the limited resources we have,” Moss said. “The last two budget years have been really hard.”

Adding hours and days would be expensive and the public has to create the political will in local elected officials, Moss said.

There may be demand for bus service area such as Clermont or Gillsville, but it wouldn’t be effective to provide it there because the density is small, with houses spread out from each other by several acres.

Morton is a client of Avita Community Partners, a public agency formed by the state legislature to help people with mental illness, developmental disabilities and addictive diseases. She’s part of the Supported Apartment Program, which provides daily help so individuals can live independently.

Michelle Thompson, Avita’s Housing Coordinator, said clients sometimes need to get to different locations within the county for services, such as its ambulatory detoxification program on Mabry Road in Gainesville, which is not on a fixed bus route.

Thompson said there are about 100 people in her apartment program, many who don’t drive because of illness and who live on little or no income. The state contracts with the transit service annually to transport people who get state services.

Morton had another complaint about the bus service: When the Gainesville Social Security Administration office moved into a nicer office on Thompson Bridge Road, the bus stop didn’t move. Morton said the walk from the McDonald’s by the stop to the office, about a half-mile, is scary and dangerous, especially as a woman.

“I was walking by myself and I was petrified,” Morton said. There are no sidewalks on the route.

Moss said she gets many complaints about that and she understands, but she said the amount of traffic and the buses’ safety made them decide not to access that area.

“We don’t have a pedestrian-friendly community,” Moss said. “We can’t follow every government agency or private business.”

Transportation service runs a community, said Judith Escamilla, executive director of the Gainesville Housing Authority. For example, a low-income mom whose child needs something from the store to finish a homework assignment for the next day has no options with no car and public transportation stopping at 5 p.m.

People attending Alcohol or Narcotics Anonymous meetings might not have driver’s licenses and meeting aren’t always within walking distance, she said. Taxis may be too pricey an option.

“It’s a shared responsibility as a community,” Escamilla said. “It’s a key need for a lower income person.”


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