The Transit Service Debate

There have been a number of high-attention emergency situations in the news across the nation this summer: shootings, fires, hurricanes, floods. And with the other primary focus in this summer’s news — the upcoming election — money, funding and budgets are at the top of everyone’s attention.

Two profiles I’ve done in the past come to mind, Coast Transit Authority (CTA) and Blacksburg Transit (BT). In Gulfoport, Miss., Kevin Coggin had talked about how CTA was the lead provider of evacuation transportation prior to Hurricane Katrina. And post Katrina, CTA is the transportation coordinator for the county for evacuation, and also for all emergency transportation.

I had talked to Rebecca Martin at BT not too long after the shooting on the campus of Virginia Tech, when 33 people were killed. Buses were used to evacuate people, to transport people to the hospital, as a triage, and for transporting officers. As Martin stated, “We just provided whatever service was needed.”

In our own community, city budget meetings have started and many are calling for no increases in taxes while maintaining all current service levels. And of course it will come to a lot of late-night meetings debating which services are more important than others.

There were several themes that were reoccurring in quotes from this year’s Top 40 Under 40 recipients and the most common was being in an industry that provides such a needed service to the community. While primarily that service is getting people to and from jobs, school, doctor’s appointments, shopping and any other place, being continually “on call” to provide much needed services in emergency situations is something that is most often not thought about by the general public.

Public transit is seen as a required service for people that can’t afford cars in my community. I have a copy of a picture of one of our city’s transit buses being used as an emergency shelter during … something. It was quite a few years ago and I don’t remember if it was an apartment fire or a shooting stand-off, but something along those lines.

The operator is standing in the door watching what is happening and the sign on the bus says “Emergency Shelter.”

It reminds me of a recent quote from Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District Transportation Consultant Cynthia Hoyle, “You talk about safe routes for kids and only the worst curmudgeon in the world is going to come in and object to that.”

The same can be said for helping people in emergency situations. As for my own experience, saying getting people to jobs or getting more cars off the streets hasn’t won any favor when brought up, but what the emergency response comment has brought up is that transit is part of a larger plan and provides needed services that most people in the community aren’t aware of.

While many people wouldn't speak against safe routes to kids or police services or fire response, the same can be said for emergency response. And while our area doesn't have ongoing evacuation planning for such things as hurricanes, we have had a variety of situations where our transit agency was there.