Bus system budget crunch: Changes put off ... for now
Steve Schell
September 1997

If you are a bus rider just returning to Gainesville after the summer, you may have noticed some changes to the routes and schedules. The new routes and times were implemented on August 26 as a result of an anticipated elimination of federal funding for the Regional Transit System (RTS). The changes did not come about easily and were the subject of a lengthy public hearing at the July 28 City Commission meeting.

RTS director Perry Maul has seen federal budget dollars steadily declining and anticipates no federal money for the next budget year. Such an elimination of funds necessitates cutting services or...(gasp!) finding replacement funding from another source. Among the changes proposed in Maull's original plan was the elimination of service on Route 10 out to Santa Fe Community College (SFCC). When this plan originally came before the commission, SFCC students loudly protested this change and presented the commission with a petition against the plan. With one commission member absent, the resulting vote was 2-2, effectively killing the plan and sending RTS back to square one. The final plan retained Route 10 but made some changes in other areas to offset it. Also in the plan was a reduction in some services to minibus users.

On the night of the public hearing, the commission chamber was packed long before the meeting began. By the time the public hearing portion began, 37 people, the large majority of which were concerned about changes to the minibus system, had signed cards indicating their wishes to address the commission on the issue. Commissioners heard from many minibus riders and from providers of services to those riders that the proposed changes would have a deleterious effect on their daily lives. Marion Mark, Executive Director of the Coordinated Transportation System, which contracts with RTS to provide services to transportation disadvantaged citizens, explained that curb to curb service was a big part of the system and was made affordable to riders because of grants which are now harder and harder to come by. CTS has always contracted with RTS to provide these services but it seems now that CTS can perform the service itself for much less than it costs RTS. However, it is not a simple matter of just changing from RTS to CTS overnight. Until the change can be made, the cuts will have to be made. Speaker after speaker told of how their only method of transportation was the minibus system and by the time it was over, commissioners, as well as others in attendance, had become a bit more educated in transportation disadvantaged matters.

The changes in the main bus system also drew comments from about a dozen speakers. Harriet Ludwig said that citizens on the new welfare to work programs would need service to employment, education, and child care and suggested that the city try to obtain funds from the state that would be saved from reductions in welfare payments.

Ruth Brown pointed out that a look at the route map would show that many areas of town are served by more than one route and that if much of the duplication was eliminated, funds would be saved without having to cut other routes or increase the time between buses. Several SFCC students said that many times when they ride, the bus is full of students going and returning from SFCC, so they could not understand why the service would be cut. Cindy Smith told the commission that their only choice considering the current situation would be to make the proposed cuts because the funds "simply aren't there." She is correct. If you don't have the money, you don't have the money. Several people offered suggestions on how to save money or to raise additional funds, i.e. sell more advertising on buses, sell ads in the trip planner to offset the cost of printing, etc. These are all nice ideas but will not make a dent in the $600,000 that will be needed to make up the federal funding shortfall.

The changes in the transit system come at a time when the city is trying to encourage people, especially University of Florida students, to ride the bus and leave the car at home, at least once in a while. UF students voted in a straw poll last spring that they would be willing to pay an extra dollar in Activity and Service Fees to be able to ride an improved transit system for free. But how do you improve a system if you don't have the funds to do it? At least two speakers, myself included, urged the commission to seek additional revenue sources in order to increase its funding to RTS. If this commission is truly committed to improving transit and increasing ridership as it has previously indicated, it has no choice but to increase its fiscal support to the system. The county commission also has a responsibility to increase funding to RTS as well as increase funding to transportation disadvantaged programs. At least the city's funding has remained fairly steady while the county's funding to RTS has been reduced over the last couple years. It would seem then, that any cuts that were to be made should be made in areas that serve unincorporated areas of the county (read: Tower Road). Given the current makeup of the county commission, any increase in funding seems out of the question, even if citizens in affected areas of the county make their concerns known at every county commission meeting from now until next year. But that's another story altogether.

After the public comment period, City Manager Wayne Bowers proposed to the commission that they accept the cuts in main bus service but keep the minibus service intact for the first quarter of this fiscal year, saying that "I'm sure we can find the necessary funds to keep this going" while working closely with CTS to ensure a quick and easy transition from RTS to CTS. Those in attendance nearly erupted in cheers upon hearing this idea. Commissioner Pegeen Hanrahan alternatively proposed making no changes at all, saying "I'm sure that if we can find the funds for the first quarter of minibus service, we can find them for the main bus service as well." Other commissioners, however, were not eager to put themselves in a position to be forced to find the money during upcoming budget hearings and the final vote was to accept the main bus changes but to leave minibus service intact.

You have to notice the difference between the county commission and the city commission when it comes to citizen input. It is clear that the city commission would have probably accepted the proposed changes had it not been for the comments from affected citizens at this public hearing. The county commission, on the other hand, with the notable exception of Commissioner Penny Wheat, may have listened to comment for two hours but would have already made up its collective mind before the meeting. This group makes one feel that it is a privilege, not a right, to address the county commission on a public issue. Perhaps they will begin to charge a fee for it.

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