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Pandemic’s impact, uncertainty of transit funding prompt request to eliminate Rowan Express service

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — With the budget due soon and uncertainty about transit funding, Rowan County Transit is requesting the elimination of the Rowan Express service in hopes of delivering its other services more efficiently.

The Rowan Express, created in 2009, has a fixed route that provides service to China Grove and Landis as well as connections between Salisbury Transit and the Concord Kannapolis Area Transit. It also provides a connection to the Amtrak stations in Salisbury and Kannapolis.

Both Rowan County Transit and Salisbury Transit have fixed routes with multiple stops that are open to the general public. Each agency also has an ADA-compliant system that requires an application process to be enrolled. The ADA-compliant buses go door-to-door and require appointments for pick-ups and drop-offs.

Valerie Steele, director of the Mid-Carolina Regional Airport and Rowan County Transit, made the case for eliminating the Rowan Express service during the county’s budget work session May 6.

Transit agencies across the state were severely impacted by the pandemic, and future funding is still uncertain. Both the Rowan system and the Salisbury system operated solely on federal CARES Act funding for the 2020-21 fiscal year after House Bill 77 was passed by state lawmakers in June. That bill prohibited a federal allocation of $18.67 million for the Rural Operating Assistance Program (ROAP) and $32.53 million from the State Maintenance Assistance Program.

David Rhew, executive director of the North Carolina Public Transportation Association, said the organization continues to monitor the General Assembly, which is soon expected to shift discussions to efforts to pass the 2021-23 budget, as well as the federal government with the potential infrastructure plan.

ROAP funds are targeted toward elderly and disabled adults, the rural general public and urban employment. It’s enough to cover rides for one day of each week based on location and is reserved for life-sustaining trips like to obtain groceries or medical care, Steele said. Those funds can be used on the Rowan Express service.

Additionally, a federal Home and Community Care Block grant program provides funding to serve adults aged 60 or older, with eligibility based on priority. That program helps support transportation for those seeking adult protective services, those at risk of abuse or neglect and those with limited transportation options.

More than half of the county’s transit funding comes from the Federal Transportation Authority, which is then funneled via the state’s Highway Fund. Since getting rid of the expense also means getting rid of the revenue for the services, Cabarrus-Rowan Metropolitan Planning Director Phil Conrad says the savings aren’t necessarily reflected in the budget. Conrad helped bring the Rowan Express program to fruition in 2009.

There are other unknown factors to consider in terms of the long-term well-being of public transportation, he added. For example, if gas prices increase, will that be reflected in ridership data? And if the county continues growing at a steady rate as it has been, will that also increase the demand for transit services? He fears eliminating the service may mean it won’t be revived in the future. But as a former town manager, he understands the department is unable to eat that expense with the financial hardship from the pandemic, and must make cuts when needed.

Included in Gov. Roy Cooper’s 2021-23 budget proposal is a reauthorization of the ROAP and SMAP funds.

But Steele said the grants received are still not sufficient to cover the costs of operating the Express, especially with ridership down between 46%-50% each month since the start of the pandemic compared to pre-COVID rates. Additionally, it’s unclear when and by how much ridership will increase.

Data provided to the Post show that ridership exceeded 1,110 each month from July 2019 to February 2020. Beginning March 2020, ridership declined below 900 each month, reaching as low as 651, with the exception of 930 riders in October. A total of 1,281 riders used the service in January, 1,299 in February and 1,388 in March. In 2021, 611 riders used the service in January, 679 in February and 737 in March.

A total of 14,243 people used the Rowan Express from July 2019 to June 2020, or fiscal year 2019-20. That’s compared to 16,362 riders in fiscal year 2017-18.

Steele said from July 2020 to March 2021 the Rowan Express service netted an expense of $158,816. With just 6,853 riders during that time, it amounted to a cost of $23 per ride. Fares only cost $1, and county employees ride for free. Additionally, no fare is charged when passengers use the service to transfer from another transit service.

Steele estimates an average of 25.38 trips were made each day across the two buses that operate on the route over the last nine months, with an average of two riders per hour. When adding in the drivers’ hourly wage, not including benefits, the amount climbed to $71.82 per ride.

Maintenance for the buses is another expense as well as the needed CDL endorsement. The Rowan Express service also extended the department’s staffing hours as it operated from 4:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Steele said there were times when one person was left completely alone at 4:30 a.m., which poses a safety risk. Without the service, operable hours could begin at 5:30 a.m. and last until 5:30 p.m.

Eliminating the service doesn’t eliminate locals’ access to public transportation or create bigger barriers for the neediest, Steele said, especially since most use the Rowan Express to commute to work. The Medicaid transit service, which is administered via the Department of Social Services, will continue.

Additionally, Rowan Transit System also provides a Rowan Individual Transportation Assistance program, which is stationed at different areas of the county on designated days. It serves the western portion of the county on Tuesday, the northern area on Wednesday, the southern area on Thursday and the eastern area on Friday. It operates Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., and charges riders $2 per trip unless they’re eligible for certain grant programs or Medicaid.

Salisbury Transit also has a fixed route with multiple stops that are open to the general public, along with an ADA-compliant route.

Steele’s request to County Manager Aaron Church is the elimination of three currently vacant full-time driver positions from the upcoming budget, which would allow Rowan Express drivers and vehicles to be dedicated to other services such as an increased focus on medical trips. She also requested Church consider increasing the number of part-time workers in the department’s budget.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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