Mount Airy officials have delayed action regarding a new transportation program in the city, after questions surfaced about the “circulator” route.
Concerns were raised during a Thursday night meeting of the city commissioners about the cost of a government-subsidized shuttle-type service, and whether its operation would be fair to private businesses such as cab companies. There also were claims that such programs are the reason why the federal government faces a massive budget crunch.
“If I was going to vote tonight, I’d have to say ‘No,’” Commissioner Steve Yokeley said after a presentation on the planned circulator service by an official of Yadkin Valley Economic Development District Inc. (YVEDDI).
The board of commissioners subsequently voted 4-1 to put off a decision on a YVEDDI request for the city government to send a letter of support to the N.C. Department of Transportation regarding grant assistance sought for the program.
YVEDDI would use the grant to establish the hourly circulator service that would transport passengers to key locations such as shopping areas, the hospital and others using a 19-passenger van. The cost to the general public would be only $1 per trip.
If the city council doesn’t support the service, YVEDDI Transportation Director Jeff Cockerham told officials Thursday, the Department of Transportation likely will not contract with his agency to operate it here.
Cockerham said during his presentation that the circulator route basically would expand an existing public-transportation program already offered on a “demand” basis. Someone now can request a ride on a YVEDDI vehicle from their home to a doctor’s office, for example.
The circulator system instead would involve a series of regular pickups at locations such as elder housing and low-income neighborhoods and stops at Walmart, medical facilities, city parks and other strategic locations. Since one of the destinations targeted is the park-and-ride lot of a regional bus service, it also represents a way for those without vehicles to reach job destinations, the transportation director said.
“This circulator route could help group these folks together,” Cockerham said of the various people seeking rides. Adding such a service in Mount Airy is the highest priority in a five-year transportation plan for the four-county area served by YVEDDI, based on a review of existing programs and input from the public which included a survey.
Cockerham stressed that the city government is not being asked to help pay for the program, which YVEDDI is hoping to launch sometime after July 1. Money required for a local match for the DOT funds would come from grant money already allocated to YVEDDI, he said.
But among the various concerns raised Thursday night was whether that might change eventually — if the grant assistance is exhausted and YVEDDI needs funding to keep the circulator service afloat.
“Should we expect you to appear before us in the future, asking for money?” Commissioner Jon Cawley said to Cockerham.
The YVEDDI official said he couldn’t provide a guarantee, but has no plans to seek such assistance, explaining that the intent is to operate the service as a business. And while only handfuls of people might be transported on an hourly basis with the public at large paying just $1, that would be offset with passengers supported by programs such as Medicaid who’d be charged higher rates, he said.
It’s estimated that 13,260 passenger trips would occur on an annual basis.
Citizens, Board Weigh In
Comments from citizens — and commissioners — about the transportation service found their way into Thursday night’s proceedings.
Rawley King referenced the issue during a public forum in which speakers could address any city government topic. King, who is in his 70s, recalled a bus service operating in the 1940s era to take people from rural areas to town to shop.
But it involved a private business that made money. King questioned the $1 charge to the general public for the YVEDDI service, saying it sounds “awfully cheap,” and said the reason is because the program will be subsidized by grant money from taxpayers.
King said when the grant runs out, YVEDDI will be looking elsewhere for the money. “Anytime you start something like this, it’s going to get bigger,” he said of how such programs evolve.
Paul Eich, another citizen, also questioned the financial implications of the plan.
“My concern is, once you start something that costs 15 times as much as you’re charging, you’re never going to break even,” Eich said of the possible need for future funding from local taxpayers.
“You come back later and charge everybody for the few who ride it,” he said of the YVEDDI fleet. “I do believe this plan is taxpayer money down the tubes.” Eich urged the city board to “look at the whole picture” and not send the letter of support.
“Let’s not get another grant program going that spends a whole lot of money.”
Meanwhile, citizen J.C. Short also questioned the fairness to existing local businesses such as cab companies.
“To me, you’re competing against private business,” Short said of a transportation service subsidized by public funding. “The private man, he don’t get it.”
Adding To Deficit?
Individual commissioners also addressed the philosophical question of how the planned YVEDDI effort is symptomatic of the government spending crisis.
Scott Graham implied that the program is part of a bigger problem in which people are encouraged to sit home and collect government benefits instead of working for a living. “This is just a small piece of it,” he said of the circulator plan.
Shirley Brinkley, another commissioner, also questioned how many people would actually use a YVEDDI van to get to work — a figure Cockerham couldn’t supply Thursday night.
“We are serving too many people who are taking advantage,” Brinkley said of the system in general, and added later, “I am not a big grant lover.”
“I agree there is a group of people who ‘ride’ the system,” Cockerham responded, but he said there are legitimate needs as well. He cited the example of an elderly woman who told him she feels “like a prisoner in my own home” due to not having transportation.
“My job is to do my best to make this plan work,” Cockerham explained.
After Brinkley and Yokeley said they needed more time before a vote, including examining the full five-year plan and getting additional statistics, the board voted 4-1 to delay approving the letter of support.
Commissioner Cawley cast the dissenting vote.
He explained afterward that his stance reflected a statement by Cockerham that the circulator would create at least three jobs to operate the route.
“My reason for voting ‘No’ was we’re always talking about doing everything we can for jobs,” Cawley said, adding that the request before the board Thursday “was just a matter of us sending a letter.”
He concluded, “I thought that wasn’t too much to ask.”
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.