When he came to make the case more than a year ago, David Hooper described a problem with a pretty big hole in its solution. It’s been solved since.
Now it’s up to Fort Mill, Tega Cay and York County leaders to decide if they’ll pay.
Hooper, director of the Rock Hill-Fort Mill Area Transportation Study, sees a glaring area of York County without access to public transportation. Because federal urban area boundaries determine funding, and some parts of York County — Tega Cay, Fort Mill, the S.C. 49 corridor of Lake Wylie — fall into what’s considered for federal purposes part of the Charlotte urban area, they can’t access the same funds that serve Rock Hill, western York County or Indian Land.
They couldn’t, at least, until now.
Hooper’s group petitioned for and got a change in the federal rules allowing funds from the Rock Hill urban area to be used throughout York County. Meaning options for Fort Mill, Tega Cay and the unincorporated area between them.
“That is the one place within the RFATS transit area where there is no transit service available,” Hooper said.
RFATS covers an area of more than 200,000 people. The 82X CATS bus from Charlotte runs from Rock Hill to Carowinds, with connections to the city. York County Access offers demade response service west of the Catawba River. Lancaster Area Ride Service operates in the Indian Land panhandle.
Hooper said a study he brought to Fort Mill, Tega Cay and York County more than a year ago showed a need based on population and demographics, though back then there wasn’t an option for federal funding help.
“You see more of a concentration here closer to I-77, and you see it a little bit east going toward Fort Mill,” he told Tega Cay City Council on Monday. “You see it down in the Rock Hill urbanized area, and you don’t see it as strongly here in Tega Cay.”
Transit users tend to be people looking for medical trips, though access to employment is part of the equation.
“You’ve got of course low income households, those who are a little bit older, those households with no vehicles and of course those with special needs,” Hooper said.
Hooper recommends a demand response service, or “dial a ride,” compared to a fixed route service typical of buses or trains in larger cities.
“In the absence of any service, to jump right into a fixed route would be a little bit ahead of where we’re at,” Hooper said. “Although longer-term (the study) did say that a circulator along the (S.C.) 160 corridor certainly looks very likely. We’re just not there yet.”
Plus, demand response allows areas to get in at a relatively low cost while they determine ridership needs.
“It’s demand-based. It’s not route-based,” Hooper said. “It seems to make a lot of economic as well as operational sense.”
The trick is, federal funding wouldn’t come immediately. A new program has to be in place a couple of years before the federal funding kicks in to help. Hooper estimates Fort Mill, Tega Cay and York County could pay for 30,000 passenger miles a year for about $10,000 each. After two years, federal money would arrive.
“Those numbers would be cut in half,” Hooper said.
Tega Cay leaders said they are interested in their part, but didn’t take any formal vote yet. There are some concerns. One is, demand service doesn’t offer the direct connections a fixed route would. An important difference for someone looking for rides to and from work.
“It’s more like vanpooling, in a sense,” said city Councilwoman Dottie Hersey.
The program also wouldn’t provide rides, except under certain circumstances, into Charlotte.
“I would sense from here, many people for work do need to go to Charlotte,” Hersey said. “The limitation of York County is not helpful.”
Councilwoman Jennifer Stalford said a smaller community service is in place to help seniors with rides in Tega Cay. There isn’t a cost. She can’t see where those riders would switch to a ride with a fare.
“Why are these people now going to switch to something else?” Stalford said. “They already have a service that’s free.”
The city intends to put a community survey online to see what type of interest there is before making a decision. Hooper said the cost of a new service wouldn’t change depending on how many of the three municipal bodies choose to participate. The price would change based on how many ways the cost splits. Council members asked if there are other ways of splitting the pie.
“Obviously we’re the small kids out of the group, but we’re going to pay the same share when it’s highly likely we will not have the majority of the service,” Hersey said.
Mayor George Sheppard asked if more should come from the county.
“The City of Tega Cay pays taxes to York County,” he said. “The city of Tega Cay doesn’t get a whole lot of services for the taxes that we pay to York County. Why wouldn’t York County have a greater share in this?”
Despite the questions, Council expressed interest and wants to see what their community has to say. Hooper will make a similar presentation soon to Fort Mill Town Council to gauge interest.
At least initially, the new service could run as an extension of York County Access. That program operates out of the York County Council on Aging. For now, Hooper said, demand response could be a good fit for the area. It will be some time before York County has its own regional travel authority to tackle large scale public transportation needs.
“We’d be a number of years away from that, under any circumstances,” Hooper said.