Popularity outpaces funding for York County’s transportation program

Hattie McCrorey now has an affordable ride to work.

And at $2.50 one way, “It’s every bit worth it,” she said Wednesday, when she rode a York County Access bus from her house to her job at Winthrop University, where she works in the food court in the DiGiorgio Campus Center.

“Before I had found out all about this, I was catching a cab and really couldn’t afford it,” she said.

York County Access is a publicly funded transportation program in York County and Rock Hill that allows residents to call and schedule essential trips. The buses provide curb-to-curb service and wheelchair lifts, and drivers are trained to work with riders with disabilities.

A combination of federal, state and local dollars pays for the program, which the York County Council on Aging administers.

For about four months since her car broke down, McCrorey was taking a taxi to work at $8 a trip. Then, a coworker mentioned Access to her. She plans to continue using the service until she gets her tax refund and can fix her car, she said.

Since York County Access launched in May 2006, demand has grown steadily and, for the first time ever, is outpacing the dollars set aside this year to pay for the program, said Wendy Duda, executive director of the Council on Aging.

At its meeting Tuesday, the York County Council approved additional money for the program, a maximum of $90,000 from the county’s reserves.

The figure just about doubles the amount the program needed to provide rides to rural York County residents between July and December. The extra dollars will boost “essential service” rides for county residents, many of them seniors, to “essential destinations,” according to the program’s website.

Such destinations include medical appointments, the pharmacy or essential shopping. Riders with medical needs get priority. Riders whose normal work transportation falls through, or those hunting for jobs, also use the service sometimes, Duda said.

Instead of having regularly scheduled routes, Access buses run on demand. Schedulers try to group riders for efficiency.

Without the services, some riders would be turned away and only those with the most dire needs would get to ride.

“For some people it’s a life-or-death situation,” Duda said, referring to the riders with serious medical conditions.

There’s also been increased demand for the services inside the city of Rock Hill, said David Hooper, the city’s transportation planner.

“This year has just really proven the real great need for transportation,” Duda said. “We’re getting more and more people calling that just truly have no other way to go.”

A growing need

York County Access began as a program to provide essential transportation to rural York County residents and grew in 2007 to include urban Rock Hill residents.

In 2010, Access launched a ride-to-work service, providing regular transportation for Rock Hill riders to and from work during peak hours. That program grew out of increased demands on the city’s essential service rides for work transportation.

In 2010, York County essential service riders took 2,757 trips and Rock Hill riders took 10,222. Those figures jumped to 4,045 and 12,247 trips in York County and Rock Hill in 2011. The newer ride-to-work program provided 2,948 trips between July and December 2010 and 5,840 in 2011.

The programs’ budgets have also increased steadily over the years, spiking recently due to higher demand. The three services – rural, urban and ride-to-work – have grown to a combined budget of more than $270,000 for the 2010-2011 fiscal year.

Duda said the economy and high gas prices probably have a lot to do with the increased demand for rides, which rose sharply from 2010 to 2011. Riders aren’t surveyed on why they use the service.

Hooper recently asked the City Council to consider allowing a 7 percent increase in services for the urban essential services, which would add 5,000 miles of trips to the program’s current offering of 75,000 miles a year.

In the next year, the city will look at how demand for the ride-to-work program is increasing. More than a year old, the program has room for growth in the budget, he said.

The program fills a definite need, he said.

Some express bus routes carry Rock Hill and Fort Mill riders to and from the Charlotte transportation network, but Rock Hill doesn’t have any in-city rapid transportation system with set bus routes.

To sustain a system like that would require a substantial, dedicated ridership and significant investments in transportation infrastructure, Hooper said.

In the meantime, the ride-to-work program allows the city to serve customers on a demand basis with routes designed to meet customers’ specific and immediate needs.

Tanya Dunphy, a manager of Carolinas Cab Company in Rock Hill, said she isn’t sure if Access has had any impact on demand for her cabs. Business has increased in recent years.

“Obviously, when you hear about another form of transportation offered in what is considered a small community, it gets to the point that you don’t need any more,” she said.

But for now, the competition isn’t a problem, she said, adding that a lot of people enjoy riding in cabs and get to know the drivers.

Sheila Baxter of Rock Hill has had a similar experience of community driving Access buses since September.

Baxter knows her riders.

“They’re your group,” she said, “and you form a bond.” She knows them by name and looks forward to seeing and interacting with them.

It’s a rewarding job, she said, “helping people that wouldn’t necessarily have transportation.”

By Jamie Self, Staff Reporter with The Herald