Polk’s Foothills Express bus service to be scaled down

Published 10:00 pm Thursday, October 20, 2016

Polk County’s Foothills Express bus service between Tryon and Mill Spring will be scaled back to one bus instead of two and fewer hours on Monday, Wednesday and Friday due to low ridership. The service began through the county transportation department last November. (photo by Leah Justice)

Polk County’s Foothills Express bus service between Tryon and Mill Spring will be scaled back to one bus instead of two and fewer hours on Monday, Wednesday and Friday due to low ridership. The service began through the county transportation department last November. (photo by Leah Justice)

COLUMBUS – Polk County’s fixed bus route with stops from Tryon to Mill Spring will be scaled down after county commissioners were told 386 people rode the bus from November 2015 through August 2016.

Commissioners discussed options regarding Foothills Express during its Oct. 3 meeting, and then made the decision to scale down the service during its Monday, Oct. 17 meeting.

The bus route, beginning Nov. 21 this year, will be scaled down to one bus, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, from 8:30 a.m.-2:45 p.m. The current buses run from 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Also on the new service, the bus will not stop at a bus stop unless someone is waiting.

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During the county’s Oct. 3 meeting, transportation director Dianne Timberlake reviewed the service with commissioners. Foothills Express is paid through a grant and was implemented mainly for Polk residents to not have to make reservations in order to take advantage of rides through the county transportation department. The route runs between Tryon and Mill Spring and reservations can be made a day in advance for the bus to deviate one-half mile in order to pick up residents or drop them off at another location. Foothills Express is covered by an annual $282,000 grant.

Timberlake said the service has been positive for some, saying one man needed a ride to Food Lion from Highwood Apartments and was able to take advantage of Foothills Express and a family rode regularly over the summer to Dollar General and other stores. The grant covers 50 percent of operating costs as well as maintenance.

“I’d love to tell you the buses are packed every day,” Timberlake told commissioners on Oct. 3. “Some stops no one is on the bus.”

The most people getting on or off the bus has been at the transportation office in Columbus, with the second largest number of trips being made at the Mill Spring Ag Center and the third at Bi-Lo in Columbus.

Timberlake said it was surprising to see that only four people have gotten on and off the bus at St. Luke’s Hospital.

Timberlake said almost a year into the service, it’s difficult to say whether the county should continue or not.

“I was told to allow at least a year, to a year and a half, to determine if the service works or not,” Timberlake said.

She said earlier this month it was suggested to increase the fare to $2 per ride over $1 to help cover costs.

Timberlake also told commissioners there are people who are beginning to want the service and she’s also heard from people who are uncomfortable seeing empty buses.

“There is no formula to tell how many people we should have running,” Timberlake said.

On Oct. 3 Timberlake made some recommendations for commissioners to consider, including keeping the service as is (two buses running), to scale it back to just one bus and scale back hours, or to eliminate the service.

The county transportation advisory board voted unanimously to keep Foothills Express operational at some capacity. Timberlake’s recommendation was to scale it back to one bus until next fiscal year to see if there is any increase in riders.

During the Oct. 3 meeting, commissioner Ted Owens said his concern is the grant funding is tax dollars. He said he feels like in a county as small as Polk, the preferred service is the regular service that goes door to door to pick up residents.

“I don’t think in rural Polk County this kind of system (bus stops) works,” Owens said. “I think you’ve proven that with the numbers you’ve got. It’s taxpayer money and you already have a system that people prefer.”

County manager Marche Pittman said this week the challenge of discontinuing the service would be on the operating side of the budget. With Foothills Express, the county is taking advantage of state funding that it has never taken advantage of before that pays for some salaries and other expenses for the department. Pittman said if commissioners decide to discontinue the service mid budget, the county would lose that funding stream which would impact the operating budget for the transportation department.

“If the board chose to shut it down completely the county is going to have to take up some more costs,” Pittman told commissioners.

Pittman said he thinks by scaling down the service, the county will be able to continue it and take advantage of the additional revenue.

Timberlake said the grant specifically speaks of having a fixed route and stops. The advantage is, she said, residents don’t have to call ahead. She said there are similar routes in other small, rural systems.

“We are still able to cover the people who cannot make it to a bus stop,” Timberlake said. “That service is still pretty strong.”

Timberlake also said reducing Foothills Express to just one bus will still allow the county to cover the number of people who are asking for the bus stop service.

Commissioner Keith Holbert said he thinks the county needs to advertise the service more and see what happens, saying the county can’t tell based on any service less than a year.

Timberlake said she plans to visit some other systems to see how Polk can make theirs work.

Foothills Express will be scaled back until the end of the current budget year. The county will decide at a later date what changes to the service, if any, are needed prior to the new budget year beginning on July 1.