Adapting during lean times

Urban designation in Haywood forces new public transit approach
By Vicki Hyatt | Mar 20, 2017
Haywood Public Transit Director Alex Aumen stands in the lot where the program's fleet of 19 vehicles are parked.

Each year, Haywood Public Transit provides about 40,000 rides to people who have few options to get places such as the doctor's office, the grocery store, the bank or perhaps to visit a spouse in a long-term care facility.

The program fills a vital need for the estimated 3,000 elderly or disabled persons in the county who have no other form of transportation, statistics show. But there are numerous other riders who use the service, especially to get to work.

“There are plenty of elderly folks who can’t drive anymore or who need short-term help with transportation,” said Alex Aumen, head of Haywood Public Transit. “They may have had a medical procedure and no family in area. There are others who have employment, but no means to get to work.”

Despite the need for such a service, funding for Haywood Public Transit, which is a program of Mountain Projects, has been slowly dropping off. The change began after the results of the 2010 census became available.

As Aumen explains it, there are two pots of federal funds administered by the state that are made available to aid in public transportation — one for rural areas and the other for urban.

The most recent census pegged Haywood's population above 59,000 and determined there were areas in the county that were considered urban. While the new designation made Haywood eligible for some of the available urban funding, the mechanisms for disbursing them in counties considered to be a mix of urban and rural weren’t set up until recently.

The change resulted in a loss of more than $142,000 in funding in Haywood since 2014. That loss has translated into about 10,000 fewer trips for people who didn't have a vehicle or could not drive, Aumen said.

“What’s happened to us is the state said were partially urbanized so were eligible for urban funds and decreased our rural funding over the years, starting in 2014,” Aumen explained. “But, originally, the urban funds were for fixed routes only, so we weren’t eligible.”

Fixed routes are ones where there are scheduled stops at set times. The system currently used in Haywood is a demand-response model where individuals call in advance to schedule a pick-up.

The rules restricting urban funds to only fixed routes have recently changed, Aumen said, so Haywood Public Transit is in the process of crafting a plan to access the new pot of funds.

Haywood isn’t the only county in the region that was caught in a no-win situation without a fixed route. While there are a number of counties that would be eligible for the urban pool of money, only Asheville and Hendersonville have taken advantage of the funds, Aumen said. Not even Buncombe County was prepared to carve out areas to take advantage of new funding sources until this year.

The local metropolitan planning organization recently completed a study that includes a formula determining how much funds are available to areas such as Haywood.

The hope is to restore service to previous levels; offer some regularly scheduled routes in the urban areas to improve service; and increase funds to transport people to work, Aumen said.


County ties

Since the transit program in the county is operated by the nonprofit organization Mountain Projects, Inc., it is not eligible to directly receive the state transportation grant and must instead go through Haywood County.

The catch to receiving urban funding is there must be a 50 percent match for funding, which means for Haywood to maximize the funds it can receive, the commissioners may need to earmark more funds for the match.

“What we’re hoping will happen is for the county to help out with that match,” Aumen said, noting that slightly more than $100,000 would be available to assist for the urbanized area transportation needs.. “It could be phased in. We don’t have to use it all in one year. As long as we apply annually, we’re still eligible.”

Aumen said the vision for the money is to supplement funds that were lost in the past several years return service to pre-2014 levels.

“We honor all medical, employment and school trips, but had to restrict personal trips,” Aumen said. “There a limit of once a week. We'd like to offer rides for personal reasons and have more funds to help take people to work.”

He stressed the need for a reliable transportation service in the county.

“There has been a lot of talk about a living wage,” Aumen said, noting many jobs in the county aren’t in line with the new living wage standard, which is $13 an hour. “People have to make sacrifices, and a lot of time that sacrifice is transportation. It is hugely beneficial to have more transportation available for use.”


How it works

To take advantage of the public transportation service in Haywood, users must call at least 24 hours in advance and before noon. The caller needs to say where they live,  where they need to go and what time they need to be there

Haywood Public Transit personnel prepare daily routes based on the calls, making an effort to coordinate trips whenever possible. The agency  has a fleet of 19 vehicles, most of which are vans, but Aumen said there is one high top vehicle as well as light transit vehicle that look like large church buses. The vehicles are equipped with wheelchair lifts to better serve users.

Everyone pays $2 per ride, which is $4 a round trip. These fares bring in about $19,000 annually. The transportation cost is subsidized through federal and state programs such as Medicaid and the social services department, which has funds to provide client transportation. Clients being billed through these programs are exempt from the fares. The program also has contracts with employers such as Haywood Vocational Opportunities to provide rides to work for employees.

In addition to the federal transportation funds distributed through the state, Mountain Projects also receives grants to offset the transportation cost.

Haywood Public Transit's annual budget is about $680,000 annually, Aumen said. With the funds, the program has provided between 37,000 and 40,000 trips annually over the past several years. Once the urban funding source is tapped, the hope is to raise that level by 10,000 trips.

As a plan is being crafted to provide service in the urbanized areas of the county with the new funds. Aumen said he's looking at "deviated fixed routes," ones that work like a regular bus route with a set schedule, but where's there's some flexibility to veer slightly off the route for a pick-up.