It was a warm and muggy afternoon as Bruce Terrell sat on the steps of the Gainesville Connection terminal on Main Street waiting for his bus to arrive.
A $2 all-day pass allows the 29-year old Terrell to connect on the routes that will take him to work at Starbucks inside Kroger on Jesse Jewell Parkway early in the morning and back home in the afternoon.
Dreaming of a career in game art and design, and looking to finish an online education with Full Sail University in another two years, the young African-American is familiar with the system’s six routes and the way the buses operate.
“That bus took off at 2:20. It won’t be back here until 3:20,” Terrell said.
Michael Simpson also waited at the terminal for a bus to drop him off at a stop close to his home. The 57-year-old laborer had just finished an 11-hour graveyard shift at Pilgrim’s.
“The buses are OK,” Simpson said. “But if you have to go to work or get out of work after 6 p.m, you’re out of luck.”
Phillippa Lewis Moss, the Community Service Center director for the city who oversees Gainesville Connection, understands the frustrations of passengers such as Simpson and the approximately 12,500 passengers who use the system each month. She is working on a plan that would extend hours and improve frequency on the service that currently operates from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Moss said she and her staff recently worked with some local employers to map the addresses of their staff to a map of the city and county. They then put an overlay of those addresses over the Gainesville Connection bus stops.
“What we found is that 70 to 80 percent of those employees already live very close, within walking distance or stone’s throw of a Gainesville Connection bus stop,” Moss said.
“Why aren’t they using the bus system? Because we’re not open early enough and we close too early,” Moss said.
Mincey Marble Manufacturing Inc. is one of about a dozen businesses Moss has reached out to in hopes of better understanding the commute patterns of their employees.
Mincey Marble President and CEO Donna Mincey welcomes the initiative because the business will soon be relocating from Browns Bridge Road outside the Gainesville Connection service area to the Gainesville Business Park on the bus route.
“We thought about this before that it would be helpful for our employees if they could ride the bus to work,” Mincey said.
An obstacle to Mincey’s employees using the bus service is that they have to report to work at 6 a.m., which is the time that Gainesville Connection begins it service.
“(Moss) is working to expand the hours,” Mincey said. “She took all of our employees’ addresses and put them on a map to see where they were located. We found out that two-thirds of our employees were within a five-minute walk of the bus stop. She’s working on a route to get them all to work before 6 o’clock when we move into our new building.”
Mincey is supportive of what Moss is trying to accomplish.
“I think this is a good move forward for Gainesville,” Mincey said.
Moss would like to see the system operate from 4 a.m. to 8 p.m.
“I think we will see a natural increase in ridership and we’ll be able to meet a demand that is currently filled by a variety of more expensive services, including taxis,” Moss said. “If you are a low-income wage earner, those taxis, Uber or what have you take a nice chunk of your daily income.”
Moss said extended service and better frequency would likely attract some businesspeople as well during certain times of the day.
“I think that if we can have better hours and have better frequency of buses, meaning the buses come every 30 minutes or 15 minutes particularly during rush hours, I think we can get more businesspeople,” Moss said. “They drive their cars to work like I, but really enjoy hopping on a bus instead of getting in their hot car and sitting in traffic, which can happen. If they could get down to the square, Colonial or Lakeshore Mall, whatever, in 20 or 25 minutes, I think they would love to hop on a bus.”
Moss said she would like to see the change in operating hours begin at the start of the next fiscal year in July.
To make that happen, Moss said Gainesville Connection would need to get a matching grant from the Federal Transit Administration. She said that’s the easy part. The more difficult challenge, she said, would be getting “buy-in” from local businesses to help provide the one-to-one match required by the FTA.
“For every dollar we put in, the feds put in a dollar, and we cannot continue to shift that financial burden to the city, which is now paying the entire local match,” Moss said. “We’re looking to go to businesses and say, ‘Hey, if you’re really interested in getting your people to work, getting your people to your retail outlets, help us bring down these federal funds so we can operate earlier, operate later and operate more frequently.’”
Over the next few months, Moss said her job will be to make the pitch to businesses and get their support.
“I will tell you the perception of public transit in the last two years has shifted dramatically,” Moss said. “Ten years ago, if I were to have those conversations, I probably could have gotten laughed out of a room. But now, local business owners are very interested in transit. We have all of a sudden become sexy.”