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Gainesville and Hall examine transit options
City and county ponder ways to preserve joint bus system amid tight budgets
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Red Rabbit buses line up Friday to pick up passengers at the Main Street station. - photo by Tom Reed

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Government leaders are hoping a bus fare increase for Hall Area Transit riders will be a small price to pay in keeping the buses running.

They're also hoping it will be a way to preserve the existing transit partnership between Gainesville and Hall County.

The talk of fare increases comes as the Hall County Board of Commissioners explore ways of cutting costs — including through transportation services — as annual budget talks loom.

A formal proposal for fare increases could come from the Hall Area Transit early next week, said Phillippa Lewis Moss, director of the Gainesville-Hall Community Service Center. So will an announcement of scheduled public hearings on the increase.

The Hall Area Transit and other programs under the Gainesville-Hall Community Service Center has come under scrutiny from some commissioners looking to control budget costs.

For now, fare hikes seem to have become the most desirable option for public officials to address costs and avoid other proposed scenarios: breaking up the alliance between the city and county in providing community service programs, reducing funding for some programs or scrapping the transit system altogether.

At a Hall County work session Tuesday, commissioners signaled an interest in preserving the existing partnership between Gainesville and the county.

Later that day, Gainesville City Council supported increased fare talks, with officials also citing the need to maintain its relationship with Hall County.

Gainesville Councilwoman Myrtle Figueras said she doubted the transit service would survive without the partnership.

"We can't afford as a community to just drop the service," she added.

For the current fiscal year, Hall County and Gainesville each budgeted about $280,000 for the transit system.

Federal and state grants accounted for about $755,000.

Hall Area Transit provides two kinds of services. The most recognizable is the Red Rabbit, a fixed-route bus service that primarily serves Gainesville and Oakwood.

Red Rabbit has relatively short trips, higher density rides and is more cost effective. Fares are currently set at $1 for adults and 50 cents for seniors, students and youth.

However, each ride costs the system about $3.50, which is paid for with fares, local tax dollars and external grants.

"Fifty cents for five miles is a little too cheap," said Hall County Commissioners Ashley Bell. "I think there is room for adjustments."

Red Rabbit routes don't reach the entire county, one concern for South Hall Commissioner Craig Lutz.

"Red Rabbit doesn't serve my district," he said. "We're paying for a service that is not being used down here."

Lutz added that he doesn't think Red Rabbit should expand to Flowery Branch, either.

The second service is Dial-A-Ride, a para-transit service that provides curbside pickup for residents, mostly elderly, disabled and other clients of the Georgia's Department of Human Services.

Dial-A-Ride serves the entire county, but is less cost efficient because of longer-distance rides and fewer riders. That costs the county $21.52 per ride. Fares cost passengers $2 for the first mile and less than a dollar for subsequent miles.

Despite the higher costs, Hall commissioners have remarked on the value of the service to the county's more vulnerable residents.

In an presentation to the board this week, Moss presented a cost-benefit analysis looking at some of the alternative proposals for addressing concerns with Hall Area Transit and the wider Community Service Center.

Moss, who has pushed for keeping the current Hall Area Transit system as it is, offered options for the county to consider in making funding cuts.

  • One scenario looked having Hall County take control of Dial-A-Ride, instead of sharing costs with the city.
  • Another option was for the county to back out of Red Rabbit and allow the city to assume responsibility. In that case, Moss said, the city would likely have to offer a reduced level of service and cut staffing. In that event, Hall County would no longer pay for the service.
  • The third option looked at eliminating the transit system. However, due to grant agreements with the Federal Transit Administration, the city and could would have to repay $1.4 million to the federal government for capital investments, Moss said, in addition to about $300,000 in other costs.

Lutz applauded Moss for presenting the other scenarios.

While he supported exploring fare increases, he indicated he was still interested in exploring other options.

 

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