Feb. 22, 2012 10:59

THE TRIAD’S COMMUTER CHALLENGE: Regional transit's growing popularity and uncertain future

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Felicia Hayes stood under the awning outside the Winston- Salem Transportation Center on Liberty Street on a mild Thursday evening as she waited for the 6 p.m. bus back to Greensboro About a dozen people had gathered at the bay under streetlights warding off the gathering dusk. They exchanged pleasantries in the manner of people who hold a degree of familiarity with each other and share mutual respect. They talked about children, coursework and schedules. Some quietly talked on cell phones or listened to iPods.

Hayes has been riding PART, an acronym for Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation, since February 2011, when she applied for a job at Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest NC. She’s been a regular rider ever since — first to complete culinary training at Second Harvest’s Triad Community Kitchen and then to work there as a chef.

“My kids actually turned me on to PART,” she said. Hayes is originally from Randolph County and her children used the service to visit their father there. Now, as a regular rider herself, Hayes has come to view PART not just as a necessity but also as a boon. If she owned a car she would still choose to ride the bus, she said, primarily for the savings on gas and also to avoid the stress of navigating rush-hour traffic.

And the service is convenient: She picks up the bus in the morning and gets off in the evening about two blocks from home. “It keeps me fit,” she said. “And it gives me a chance to relax a bit at the end of my workday.”

There’s a rhythm to the PART stop on Liberty Street in Winston- Salem that goes beyond the buses coming and going at regular intervals. It’s in the complexity of arrangements evident when two women, one from Greensboro and the other from Kernersville, part ways on arrival at 8 a.m., one stepping into a waiting car in the alley behind the transportation center and the other hopping onto a waiting shuttle bus to Winston- Salem State University.

It’s there when the off-duty Winston-Salem police officer shows up and 4 p.m. to scan the crowds for dime-bag buys and to deter public drinking during peak hours through 6 p.m. It’s the jobbers in business attire who ride the bus in from the PART Hub near the airport, and the Forsyth Tech students who go back to Greensboro in the evening. It’s a sense of ease and satisfaction at knowing how the system works and understanding its advantages.

“I love it; it’s a great convenience to me,” said Ron Farnsworth, a Wells Faro employee who picks up the Davie County Express at the K-Mart parking lot in Clemmons, less than two miles from home. “I’m glad we have it. It’s better than beating up my car and burning gas.

There’s several people I know that are the same way. They go to Forsyth Medical Center and Baptist Hospital.”

Prior to my first outing on PART, I harbored the usual anxieties about accessing an unfamiliar transit system. No, I don’t mean getting accosted by panhandlers. More importantly, did I need the exact fare? Did I need to buy fare in advance? Where would I purchase a fare card? Where would I catch the bus? How much time would I need to give myself to get to the stop on time? How would I effectively operate the bike rack on the front of the bus to avoid having the driver and my fellow riders angry with me for holding everyone up as I fumbled with the contraption? How would I make transfers and avoid getting stranded until the next bus came along?

The answers to these questions are either immediately answered on the first ride or gradually resolved over time:

• Paying the fare is simple: It’s a good idea to bring a ten- or twenty-dollar bill with you. When you board the bus, you’ll feed in the money. The machine deducts the $2.40 fare for one trip and spits back a card with the remaining credit. Hold on to the card and you’re good for eight trips.

• It pays to study the schedule in advance. I visited the PART website (www.partnc.org), but you can also find brochures at major transportation centers. The Greensboro Transit Authority has 15 buses coming and going from the Greensboro Depot. The three PART lines that run through the Depot all dock at Slip 16.

• I figured I would use my bicycle to catch the bus so I wouldn’t have to bother my wife with dropping me off at the Depot. Timing a bike ride is like timing an automobile drive before Mapquest came along: You learn through experience, and if you’re really unsure maybe you should make a test run so you won’t miss your connection.

• The PART website offers a helpful “How to Ride PART” video. I watched it, especially for instructions on boarding a bicycle. Each bus carries up to two bikes. I learned on my first try that the procedure is really as easy as it’s portrayed in the video. You lift a handle to pull down the bike rack, place the bike into a track and then maneuver a springloaded safety arm to secure the bike in place. Presto!

(On most of my trips I was the only bike rider, but twice the other track was occupied. I suppose if three cyclists decided to ride any given bus, one of us would have to choose between leaving our bike or letting the bus go.)

• Understanding how to use transfers is critical for any trip between the Triad’s three cities. Express lines from rural, satellite counties funnel commuters into the two largest cities, Winston-Salem and Greensboro. The Winston-Salem and Greensboro express lines, in turn, connect their respective transit centers with the PART Hub in the airport area. One fare will get you from one city to the other, but you have to ask to your driver for a transfer to avoid getting double charged. The NC Amtrak Connector provides direct service between Winston-Salem and High Point, but traveling between High Point and Greensboro entails transferring at the PART Hub.

Taking the bus required a significant adjustment on my part.

I’m a notorious workaholic, and yet not exactly known for punctuality. I tend to stretch my workday and I like to stay up to see my wife, who works second shift. As a result, I might not roll in to the office until 9 or 10 the next morning.

Considering that the last bus leaves Winston-Salem for Greensboro at 6 p.m., I figured I would need to get an early start to have a productive workday. All three days I got out of bed at 6 a.m., which was dreadfully early compared to my usual 7:30. I had varying degrees of success completing my morning routine in a timely fashion.

Thanks to a tip from Felicia Hayes, the chef, I learned that I could meet the bus in front of the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office on Washington Street, shaving off part of the ride to the Depot. The buses run every half hour and I could be at the stop inside of 10 minutes. The bus trip itself, transfer included, takes about an hour. My office is a mere five blocks from the Winston- Salem Transportation Center, so altogether the trip takes me about an hour and 15 minutes. That compares to roughly 35 minutes by car, so public transportation clearly takes a good bit longer.

If time is at less of a premium than money, the price is right.

The cost of round-trip fare is $4.80. I calculated that I would have spent $8.81 driving my 2002 Kia Spectra round trip, so I saved $4 every day. I looked up the cost of a monthly pass ($74.50) and determined that if I maintained the discipline of taking the PART bus every day, I could realized a monthly savings of $119, which is about 6 percent of my monthly earnings.

The PART bus is a great deal. Several riders told me they think so, too, and that the savings they pocket from not having to buy gas is significant reason why they use the service.

PART has experienced gradual increases in ridership every year since it went into operation in 2002, but in 2008 ridership doubled from 28,000 in March to more than 56,000 in October. That was the year gas prices hit $4 per gallon. Ridership fell off again after gas prices stabilized, but it has never returned to 2007 levels. Monthly ridership last year was higher than the year before that, peaking at 50,254.

“Once people got on the bus and rode it, and the cost of fuel went back down, for whatever reason, they stayed on it,” PART Executive Director Brent McKinney told me. “That tells you people like to ride transit. They will ride transit. They stay on it. It also tells you it’s fuel driven.”

In spite of its growing ridership, PART faces an uncertain future.

When the NC General Assembly passed legislation enabling regional transportation authorities to operate, counties were given three options for raising revenue to pay for the systems: a tax on vehicle rentals, a vehicle registration fee or a sales tax. None of the eight member counties pays its share through sales tax. Only one, Randolph, contributes to the upkeep of the service through vehicle registration fees. The other seven opted to use rental-car taxes, presumably because the burden falls primarily on people who live outside of their counties.

Vehicle rentals turned out to be an unstable source of revenue.

When the economy was humming along, vehicle rental taxes brought in $3.6 million, but when business and leisure travel dropped off with the onset of the Great Recession revenues took a 30-percent hit. McKinney said PART is staring down the barrel of a $1.2 million revenue shortfall this year.

“Last March the PART board adopted a resolution asking the counties to support us with a three-dollar license fee, but none of them did,” McKinney said. “It wasn’t a good time. I know that.”

The authority is moving on to Plan B this year by requesting that the General Assembly increase the cap on vehicle rental taxes from 5 to 8 percent to make up the revenue shortfall. That could be a tough sell for a Republican-controlled legislature that is hostile towards taxes of any kind and skeptical of the value of public transportation.

Without new funding 2012-2013 “will be a year of maintenance,” McKinney said. “There will be no expansion of service.

We’ll not be able to market our service. We won’t be able to grow as the economy grows.”

PART service is prioritized to transport the Piedmont Triad’s residents to employment centers. Baptist Hospital and Cone Health are respectively the largest employers in Forsyth and Guilford counties, not to mention destinations for patients and visitors from around the region.

Universities, similarly, attract employees and students. The Randolph County Express and the Davidson County Business 85 Express ferry riders from Asheboro and Lexington respective to Cone Health’s three Greensboro hospitals and to UNCG. Express lines funnel riders from Mt. Airy, King, Rural Hall, Yadkinville, Mocksville and Lexington to Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem. “In the past we provided services to Dell,” McKinney said.

“We’ve had numerous requests to provide service to Caterpillar. We’ve had requests from FedEx. We can’t meet those requests without additional revenue.” Considering the cost to taxpayers — whether it be a car owner, consumer or hapless business traveler who discovers after booking a flight and a hotel room that a surcharge has been tacked onto her car-rental bill — it’s fair to ask whether the service is an efficient use of public goods.

The operating cost for PART’s bus fleet is 56 cents per mile, lower than Triangle Transit Authority, CAT in Charlotte, MARTA in Atlanta or CARTA in Charleston, SC.

In fact, the only regional transportation authority I found in the Southeast that operates buses at a lower cost per mile is the RTA in Nashville, Tenn., and buses comprise a small share of its trips compared to light rail. At 56 cents per mile, the total cost of my round trip on the bus from Greensboro to Winston-Salem comes to $30.08.

I mentioned to McKinney that the figure was significantly greater than what I would have spent on gas to make the commute, but he pointed out that I hadn’t included the cost of purchasing the vehicle, paying the registration fee and taxes, maintenance and insurance.

He told me the cost of operating an average private passenger vehicle is 62 cents per mile. At that rate, the total cost of my commute by car would come to $34.10. System-wide, each bus carries an average of seven riders. If those transit users were using private cars to make the roundtrip commute from Greensboro to Winston-Salem, the total cost would be $238.70, compared to $30.10 if they were all riding the bus together.

PART riders’ contribution to the operating cost as a share of revenue is also among the lowest in the region. Typical regional bus transit systems depend on riders for somewhere in the range of 18 percent (Triangle Transit Authority) to 24 percent (CAT) of revenue, with the rest made up from local and state taxes, along with federal grants. While PART’s cost per mile is among the lowest, its cost per trip is among the highest: $14.78.

That’s because an average trip is 26.2 miles long — a result of 1.3 million people being spread across eight different counties. Each bus trip averages about seven riders. Riding at peak times, I often found buses running at about 50-percent capacity. The 7:30 a.m. bus out of Greensboro, which is the route with the heaviest demand, carried about 30 people on Thursday, with about 10 seats open.

With an operating cost of $75 per hour, the run would almost pay for itself through fares except that many of the passengers, including seniors and students, paid a discounted fare of $1.20. McKinney said one value provided by PART is allowing people to come home with a little extra money in their pockets that they can spend in their communities, particularly important to rural economies.

“One of the good things the public could say about PART is it’s there when you need it,” he said. “If the fuel prices go up or you get to the point where you can’t afford to buy a new car, you don’t have to say, ‘I wish we had a bus.’”

But it’s also important that residents have a choice, McKinney said, adding that automobiles – also heavily subsidized – shouldn’t hold a monopoly.

“Some people don’t want to drive; they’d much rather read or text or work on their laptop computers,” he said with the air of man who has grown somewhat weary of defending his position. “If we’re going to compete as a region, we’re going to have to provide choices. That’s my story. I’m sticking to it.”

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