“What we’re doing is what I call robbing Peter to pay Paul,” she says. “What happens is that we try to stretch the services as much as we can.”
The lack of local and state dedicated funding is the biggest challenge facing SWRTA. With the population growth of seniors, there is going to be an increased demand of services. “With the demand on services it means we’re going to have to have more equipment, more employees and, of course, we have to have a permanent revenue source in order to do that,” she says.
“We can’t go hat-in-hand from year to year trying to figure out where the appropriations are going to come from and how much is going to be appropriated.”
She adds, “We have to look at diversifying our revenue stream.
“We go to City Council meetings, County Council meetings, Town Council meetings, explaining the importance of public transportation and the economic benefit,” she explains.
“What we’re trying to do in our area is to ensure that people get the stigma out of their minds that transit is a social service.
“We try to explain to individuals on a regular basis that public transportation is a part of our economic growth and development.”
She maintains, “You can build the shopping center, you can build the medical facilities, you can build the recreation facilities, but if people can’t get there, then what are you building them for?”
Educating a Community
SWRTA has found that word of mouth has gotten its message across quickly. “If you have a person that you trust, if they tell you, ‘I’ve been riding public transit for the last three months. I’ve saved money on gas, I’ve saved money on wear and tear, it works for me,’” August explains, “then you may say, ‘OK, maybe that won’t be too bad, I’ll try it next week.’”
With many of the riders working for state agencies, the next step, August says, is getting the state agencies to participate in the federal commuter benefit program so individuals could benefit from the tax credit.
“Everybody will not have a car. Everybody does not want a car,” she says.
As a retirement state, she mentions the senior population is growing by the day with people moving from the northern states down to the warmer weather of South Carolina. She says this increases the expectations of transportation.
“If you have people coming from Boston, Philadelphia, New Jersey; they have an abundance of transportation options on that end.
“I get calls at least once or twice a week asking, ‘how often does your bus run out here?’ And I’m saying, ‘well, our bus doesn’t run out there.
“We have a paratransit vehicle that can pick you up at home, dial-a-ride, 48-hour notice, that kind of thing.’
“They say, ‘I thought I could just walk out to a corner and a bus would be by in about half an hour or something.’ But no, it doesn’t work that way.”
She stresses, “Those are the types of things we are trying to get people to realize, especially the councils.
“We understand that sewer and water is important. We also understand that they are trying to bring developers into the area. But we also want them to understand that part of bringing developers into the area is trying to get them to understand that companies need people to be able to get to work.
“We want them to really look at the economic impact of public transportation overall and how that plays into the enhancement and growth of an area.”
In 2004, a partnership between the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT), SWRTA and Central Midlands Regional Transportation Authority (Central Midlands RTA) developed an alternative option for commuters, SmartRide. “Our state is no different than a lot of other areas that are more rural,” August says. “People have a love affair for their cars.”
SmartRide was operated free for nearly six months to see how many people would park their cars, get on a commuter bus and ride to work. SWRTA offers two routes originating from Camden to the Columbia metro area, and Central Midlands RTA offers two routes from Newberry.
“We started one route with a 13-passenger vehicle. Now we have a 20-passenger vehicle on that route. On the second route we have a 45-passenger vehicle,” says August. “It’s started to pick up even more of course with the gas prices vacillating back and forth.
“Public transit service is not a one-size fits all,” August says. “We try to tell them, give it a try, even if it’s just one time, to see how much fuel you save.