March 8, 2014

Transit service strapped by financial burdens

ODOT to investigate situation

James Bright, Managing Editor,
The Express-Star


Chickasha resident Carol Lambrose refuses to use the Washita Valley Transit System (WVTS). 

"It sucks," she said. 

A few years ago, Lambrose said she called the service to get on their schedule in order to have a ride to her job. Her shift was changed and she was forced to cancel the appointment. The next day, Lambrose said she called to get on the schedule again, but was told the slate was full. 

"I tried it again the day after that and was told they were full again," she said. Lambrose hasn't used the system since and said she won't until there are some reforms. She is one of many residents who want to see the hours of the transit system expanded and a route system put in place throughout the county. 

Currently, the system operates by appointment only. A passenger calls a pickup service to their house. That person will be sole passenger on one of the system's 14 currently accessible vehicles. 

Lambrose said she has seen as many as three people have to wait on a ride for up to 45 minutes while a transit automobile runs a single passenger to their house instead of filling the vehicle.

Multiple stops would effectively service the patrons of the WVTS, according to Lambrose. 

"I'd want it to run 6 a.m. to midnight and have stops at 1st, 4th, 8th, 12th, 17th, the hospital and 29th," she said. 

The decision to change the system rests solely with WVTS. Oklahoma Department of Transportation Spokesperson Cole Hackett said ODOT works to make sure rural systems comply with federal guidelines, but can only suggest changes in management. He said grouping transit passengers together is typically a more effective use of resources. 

"We encourage all service providers to group their trips and riders as much as possible for best use of their time and funding, even if their service is on demand only," Hackett said. "Typically providers ask for at least 24-hour notice in order to best schedule pick-ups and drop off's of multiple passengers on each trip. It is unusual for trips to only have a single rider, so our transit division is planning on reviewing trip and ridership numbers for the area transit providers."    

Money is the major obstacle preventing the expansions of the system, according to WVTS Executive Director Sharlotte Key. 

"We don't get a lot from ODOT and we'd have to come up with money to expand our hours or the system," she said. "$2 a ride just doesn't do it." 

Key said the system's annual budget is close to $450,000 a year. A FOI letter filed by The Express-Star found ODOT gave $140,921 to the WVTS in FY 2013. The majority of the budget is funded by advertisements, according to Key with fare sales bringing an average of $40,000 a year.

"It's really hard to come up with that money," Key said. "It would be nice if some local companies advertised." 

Hackett said more money could be available for the WVTS. 

"A provider could opt to start a new route in an area previously under-served or outside the community for which there is a demand," he said. They would receive money based on their estimated costs of service the first year, the second year they would receive a percentage of administrative and operational costs and the third year would be the average of the first two years of performance measurements."

Hackett said ODOT sets aside 5 percent of its $14.5 million budget for issues like new routes. 

A substantial grant could become available for the WVTS in the near future as well. 

"We also have a small funding stream from the MAP-21 federal reauthorization bill which provided a capital grant of $1.25 million but we're waiting on guidance from the federal government on how that money is to be distributed," Hackett said. "This comes from the Federal Transit Administration and the USDOT (United States Department of Transportation)." 

Key said on demand service is all the WVTS has ever had and the system isn't big enough to run routes. 

"Only metro systems are route systems," she said. 

Hackett echoed this sentiment. He said he understands where Key is coming from. 

"I can see why in some rural areas they would do it this way, but if there is a demand for change they need to look at it," he said. 

Regardless of whether system changes, Hackett said ODOT's contributions were never meant to fund the entirety of the WVTS. 

"(It) is in place to augment the services for these providers," he said. "Our purpose is, by no means, to be a sole funding source. Some of the providers are so small this can be the case, but it's not our function or goal. All have other funding streams."

Although there is some call for change, many are happy with the way the transit system works. 

Executive Director of the Chickasha Opportunity Center Thomas Hannon praised the WVTS.

"If they can continue doing as good a job as they are doing, I am going to be a fan for a long time," he said. 

Hannon said he started working with adults with developmental disabilities in Oklahoma City. He said the mass transit system rarely benefited his clients. 

"Some folks would have to walk a mile to get where they were going," he said. "Here they go door-to-door, they know our clients and they will call to check on them. It's a tremendous asset to the community as a whole and wish bigger cities could do a better job." 

Hannon said he trusts the WVTS to accurately reflect the needs of the community, but realizes there is always room for improvement. 

"If there was anything they could do to expand their hours and run on weekends, that would be my only suggestion, but they do such a good job, if they told me this is the way to go, I'd trust them," he said. 

Regardless of the concerns of their critics, Key said the WVTS is primarily concerned with the safety of their passengers. The vehicles don't run on many days with inclement weather. 

"If Chickasha Public Schools are closed, then we are closed," she said. "We close down for the safety of our clients. We don't want to put anyone at risk." 

The WVTS runs Monday through Friday from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. It costs $2 a fare for stops in Chickasha and $4 for rides to other parts of the county.