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Early budget talks could lead to bus service restructuring

POSTED: March 26, 2013 12:26 a.m.
Scott Rogers/The Times

A Hall Area Transit Red Rabbit bus completes its route for the day late Monday afternoon along Main Street.

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Officials of the city of Gainesville and Hall County have discussed possible changes to the area’s transit services, although much more talk is planned.

The news that the issue had been broached came at a Hall County Board of Commissioners work session Monday afternoon.

Phillippa Lewis Moss, director of the Gainesville-Hall Community Service Center, made a presentation to commissioners on approving more than $800,000 in federal grant funds to replace two Red Rabbit buses that are worn out.

Commissioner Craig Lutz said there are preliminary talks between the city and the county on options for funding the Community Service Center that may include restructuring bus service so some unincorporated areas of Hall County might lose access.

Lutz said he was wary of committing to replacement buses in case the county decides to stop participating in the Red Rabbit service. He said the previous board had discussed the county’s assuming responsibility for the Dial-A-Ride service and Gainesville’s assuming the Red Rabbit service.

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.

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 increase with each additional mile.

Moss said it’s a possibility that the Red Rabbit system would be restricted to Gainesville city limits and unavailable to some county residents who currently use the system. Route six goes strictly into Hall County and stops near UNG and Lanier Technical College in Oakwood and Lanier Career Academy, a Hall County high school focused on workforce development. The schools are in Commissioner Billy Powell’s district.

“There’s a possibility that one could be negatively affected, but until all of the negotiations are complete, we really don’t know,” Moss said.

The restructuring idea came out of the last budget cycle, but nothing came of it, Powell said. He said he would have to see details to really form an opinion.

He said he had serious reservations about buying the more expensive buses, which he said also came up during the last budget cycle. He advocated then for using the federal grant money to buy propane-fueled buses or buying buses and converting them to propane, which he said is much cheaper.

“They’re much bigger, much fancier than what we have now, with a lot more bells and whistles,” Powell said.

Any discussion was very preliminary, said Gainesville City Manager Kip Padgett. Padgett and Hall County Administrator Randy Knighton talked once about the issue last week, although Padgett said they plan to have more conservations. They want to find a long-term strategy to fund the community service center, so it doesn’t continue to get cut every year, Padgett said.

Government departments are putting together budget proposals for the next fiscal year, which starts in July.

This is a quality of life issue, such as libraries and parks, that everybody pays for, even if not everyone uses it, Commission Chairman Richard Mecum said.

Red Rabbit doesn’t run in Hall County districts 1 and 3. District 4 is represented by Commissioner Jeff Stowe and encompasses much of Gainesville.

Expanding into the county isn’t cost-effective, but many county residents who need the service live in the urban areas, such as Gainesville.

There’s no place in the country, Mecum said, he knows of where public bus service makes money.

“This particular thing is important because these are people in need, who have needs, and we need to recognize that and not just let them fall through the cracks,” Mecum said.

More people rode Red Rabbit in fiscal year 2012 than 2011, statistics show.

Ridership was 240,190 trips, with an operating cost of $3.05 per trip. Total operating cost for last year was $731,497.

For fiscal year 2011, trips were 215,433, with an operating cost of $3.50 per trip and an annual operating cost of $753,331. More than 60 percent of riders use the bus service for senior services and medical appointments.

The Federal Transit Administration pays for 50 percent of all operating costs and 90 percent of all capital costs. Gainesville and Hall County split the rest 50-50. The Georgia Department of Human Services contracts with Hall Area Transit each year to provide trips to those who get state services at agencies including the Senior Life Center, Guest House and Avita Community Partners.

The buses Moss wants commissioners to approve are fully federally funded, more durable and have a 10-year lifespan, which is double the life of the current buses.

Commissioner Scott Gibbs said if the county loses some of its local option sales tax revenue to the cities, the department may have to be cut.

The service center has already had some deep cuts in the past few years and could face additional loss of federal funding because of sequestration, across-the-board spending cuts in the federal government’s budget that took effect earlier this month.

Moss said she has to get this contract to the Georgia Department of Transportation by Thursday. The commissioners have a public meeting scheduled Thursday at 6 p.m.


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