The Fayette Tribune, Oak Hill, W.Va.

December 23, 2013

Planners seek to stimulate use of public transportation

By Cody Neff
Register-Herald Reporter

— Did you know you are living in an “urbanized” area now? Did you know that it might have bigger impacts than just a new title? According to officials from the Fayette-Raleigh Metropolitan Planning Organization, public transportation has rough roads in its future if things aren’t figured out soon. Officials from different groups met Thursday to talk about how they will fund transportation.  

“Transit is just one small component of the urbanized area designation and the aspects that are involved here,” MPO Region 1 Executive Director David Cole said. “The reason that we’re putting this much time into transportation is that we want to avoid any problems with losing public transportation.

“We want to try to ensure that, as far as transit goes, the common person on the street doesn’t even know this is going on. It should be seamless transition from rural funding for transit to urban funding for transit. It is a difficult situation because the urban designation brings with it different rules for the transportation provider. In addition to more money, it brings additional match requirements and that’s where the challenge comes. “

With the new “urban” title comes a 50/50 match requirement. Groups in the area get more funding, but they also have to provide a match for that funding. Everyone is trying to figure out where that match is going to come from.

“There are a lot of benefits that come with being an urbanized area and having an MPO that outweighs the negatives,” Cole said. “One, it creates an area that is more appealing to manufacturers, industries, markets and service providers. They look for density in population. Generally 50,000 is the magic number to be considered urban. That makes us competitive for a lot of things that we wouldn’t have necessarily been competitive for before because we didn’t have the density that would cause us to rise to the top.

“Secondly, the population increase, in addition to increased funding for things like transit, brings other funding that doesn’t have to be competed for. Beckley has become what is known as an ‘entitlement city’ and they won’t have to compete for state funds. They’ll automatically get an amount based on their population per fiscal year.”

Cole said the reason the new title might have looked negative in the past is because they have to look at things like transit up front, since it’s so important.

“It is kind of negative in the sense that transit groups can’t continue with business as usual in this area,” he said. “It’s not something that can’t be figured out. We just have to regroup. We have a lot of work ahead of us, not just in communication, but in changing the mindset of the public.

“It’s about people adapting to the schedule versus the schedule adapting to the people. It doesn’t matter if you’re in D.C. or New York or wherever, you have to have ridership that makes it important to the public entity. There has to be some personal responsibility that the people in our area accept.”

One official from the Raleigh County Community Action Association said public mindset is one of the big problems they’re dealing with right now.

“The issue with public transit in our area is that people don’t want public transit,” Executive Director Bobbi Thomas-Bailey said. “They want a cab service. They don’t want to have to go to a bus stop and have to arrive at their destination a half hour early because that’s when the bus gets you there. Obviously we can’t do that with the money we have to operate. We have plenty of room on our routes to take lots and lots of people.

“Getting people in the mindset of public transit is the difficult part. Yes, they want to ride, but they want picked up at their house, not a bus stop. They don’t want to run on a bus schedule. They want to run on their schedule. We have to run a deviated route system. If you stand at a bus stop, we’ll pick you up. If you flag the bus down, we’ll pick you up as long as you’re on one of those routes. If you want us to deviate from those routes, you just have to call us ahead of time.”

Communication was an issue that was brought up over and over.

“People don’t know what’s out there,” Thomas-Bailey said. “I think a big problem in our area is that a lot of people haven’t been exposed to larger transportation systems. We have several programs that only some people take advantage of, like JARC.

“JARC is the Job Access and Reverse Commute program. The program is set up for low-income individuals. The majority are low-income or disabled individuals. Basically, at the beginning of the month or week they give us their schedule and we pick them up at their homes and take them to work. When their work is over, we bring them back home.”

Even if public transit officials could max out every bus, they say it wouldn’t be enough to meet the 50/50 requirement.

“I could have every seat full every day and it’s still not going to support itself,” Thomas-Bailey said. “I have to have money from the cities, money from the employers, money from the contract jobs, because I can’t use those fares as match to draw down federal funds. It’s not just about ridership. It’s also about getting support from the community to provide this transportation. Fares won’t just do it.”

One community leader said communities would support the system if they knew people were being taken care of.

“We need to know that people are getting the most use out of public transit,” Fayetteville Town Superintendent Bill Lanham said. “I don’t think the public knows enough about their options to really take advantage of what’s out there.

“I think people at the DHHR need to really educate their clients about what’s out there. We need to get advertisements and brochures made and we need to get more information out there through the city websites.”

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