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Residents weigh in on possible changes to Red Rabbit
Hearings on bus service sparsely attended
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Emory Turner, a self-proclaimed advocate for low-income Hall County residents, discusses concerns Wednesday during a Hall Area Transit public forum at Gainesville State College on a proposed Red Rabbit fare increase. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Proposals for  Red Rabbit

Keep fares the same, but eliminate transfer fees:
Seniors, children and students currently pay 50 cents to ride. Adults pay $1. Paying riders are allowed one transfer ticket per ride that allows them to switch buses. This option would require riders to pay the full cost to transfer, either 50 cents or $1. Hall Area Transit estimates the change could save $50,000 annually.

Make all fares $1, but keep transfers free: This option would eliminate the discount for seniors, children and students. Hall Area Transit staff calculated $25,000 in savings.

Make all fares $1 and restrict transfers to a few locations: This option would see a fare increase and only allow free transfers at the most popular transfer stops. The option would save at least $25,000, according to staff estimates.

Eliminate Route 2, which travels past the Northeast Georgia Medical Center: This option would eliminate the least-used bus route. Operation costs for a route are about $125,000, before considering the cost of lost fares.

Add a route to the new Hall County Government Center on Browns Bridge Road: This option would increase operational costs for the Red Rabbit system, but some have argued for a need to provide accessibility to services at the county’s new building.

Reduce service hours: Currently the buses run from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. The proposed change would be from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. This change is estimated to save $12,000 to $15,000.


Hall Area Transit

With questions swirling about potential changes — including fare increases — for the Red Rabbit bus service, Hall County residents got the chance Tuesday to look at proposals and ask questions.

Hall Area Transit, the division of the Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Center that oversees the Red Rabbit fixed-route bus service, held two public hearings on possible changes. Those changes included raising fares, implementing transfer fees and eliminating one of the six routes.

All told, about 15 residents, not including government employees, attended the two meetings held at Gainesville State College and the Georgia Mountains Center. The small group who showed was largely in support of Red Rabbit and hesitant of proposals to raise fares or reduce routes.

It also had some angry words for elected officials looking to make changes on a system that group members say is a vital service for many poor, disabled and otherwise fragile members of the community.

Doreen Thomas, a Gainesville resident and retired teacher, was particularly concerned about the proposal to cut a route that she takes to get to doctor’s appointments. Thomas, who uses a cane to help her walk, said the change would force her to walk farther to get to appointments and likely mean she would go to the doctor less often.

She also questioned whether elected officials, namely members of the Hall County Board of Commissioners, were even going to pay attention to public comment.

No elected official, city or county, attended the meetings.

“A lot of us feel that it don’t matter what we say. Changes are coming whether we like it or not,” Thomas said. “(Commissioners) don’t ride the buses and their family members don’t ride the buses. So they don’t care.”

In March, the county commission signaled it wanted to consider raising fees for Red Rabbit to make the bus system self-sustaining as the county prepares for another difficult budget year.

Gainesville City Council, which is looking to continue partnership with the county, approved moving forward with the public hearings.

Although the system is largely funded through federal grants ($345,000 in operating costs), Hall County and Gainesville jointly manage the system through the Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Center.  The city and county each pay $172,000 a year in operating costs, and $62,000 comes from the fare box.

County commissioners are looking to reduce the portion they pay either through fare increases or spending cuts.

Another Gainesville resident, Emory Turner, came to speak in favor of actually adding a bus route. With Hall County government moving its headquarters to the old Liberty Mutual building near the intersection of Browns Bridge and McEver roads, Turner said a bus route needs to be rerouted to the building so residents who can’t drive — because of physical or financial restrictions — have access to the county building for voter registration and other government services.

“This bus has become a vital artery to get (many of us) where we need to be,” said Turner.

Asked what he would do to change the system, Flowery Branch resident and community activist Michael Parker said, “I would keep it pretty much where it is at.”

Parker, who doesn’t use Red Rabbit, reiterated others’ points about the bus being important to a fragile portion of the community. He said the program should be treated like a government service, not a business operation.

Currently, he said, prices are set to allow riders to have the sense of contributing to the service.

The hearings were part of federal and state requirements for public input before city council and the county commission, which get the ultimate say with Red Rabbit, can make any fare changes.

Many of those who would be most affected by any changes — the riders — were already given a voice when Hall Area Transit staff passed out surveys on Red Rabbit buses earlier this month.

Forty-nine percent opposed an across-the-board fare increase of 25 cents, and 38 percent said they would support it.

Seventy-nine percent of respondents supported eliminating a discount for children, seniors, students and the disabled to make the fare $1 for everyone.

Community Service Director Phillippa Lewis Moss, who facilitated the public hearings, said she would like to hold one more next month that would present her department’s final recommendation on changes before city council and the county commission vote on any changes.

 

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