Far be it for a conservative to feel sorry for a mass transit agency. Still, anyone with a heart who takes a look at the state of the Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation has to feel a little sympathy.
PART is facing a funding crisis of epic proportions. As a result, its future is far from certain. At the very least, routes could be reduced greatly; at the very worst, the agency could shut down.
“Shut it down and let them react,” PART board member and Greensboro City Councilman Robbie Perkins said during the board’s June meeting. “The only way to get their attention is to hit them over the head.”
Perkins is referring to local leaders of PART’s membership counties, who so far are reluctant to appropriate more funding, mostly in response to constituents, who believe they’re taxed enough already. Another tax to support a service that benefits a small portion of the population would be the last straw.
Relating that sentiment, Surry County Commissioner Paul Johnson said at the May board meeting that he’d “never taken a beating like I’ve taken in the last three weeks over this issue.”
A major chunk of PART’s funding comes from a tax on rental cars, but revenue from the tax has decreased almost $900,000 from fiscal year 2010, and is expected to decrease another $800,000 for fiscal year 2012.
Only Randolph County provides additional revenue, with a $1.00 fee on automobile registrations.
PART executive director Brent McKinney pitched a $3.00, systemwide registration fee to help raise funds, but that idea fell flat among local governments. A $1 fee also fell flat, and direct contributions from counties during a tough budget appear to be out of the question.
“The problem is we don’t have buy-in from local bodies,” Perkins said. “I haven’t heard anything but ‘no.’”
PART serves 10 counties in the Triad area, the majority of which are rural counties such as Yadkin and Surry.
Revenues from the fare box increased slightly from $610,000 in 2010 to $630,000 in 2011. Ridership fluctuates with gas prices, but increased only slightly in 2010 after a flat 2009.
While a few routes, notably from Winston-Salem to Boone — which attracts students attending Appalachian State University — are popular, one of the strongest criticisms of PART from comments in local newspapers and blogs is commenters constantly see empty buses running down the road.
“There are empty PART buses and empty PART parking lots. I live close to a destination for PART, and I have seen buses come into the designated area and no one gets on and no one gets off. The bus sits there as if people are going to materialize,” Greensboro resident Bob Ayers wrote in a recent letter to the editor in the News& Record.
Board member Gloria Whisenhunt, who also serves on the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners, acknowledged that empty buses, combined with PART’s requests for increased funding, only hurt the authority’s image.
“Until my board sees that PART is cutting, I don’t know if there’s anything we can do change our image,” Whisenhunt said.
Indeed, PART has cut some routes and restructured others, and more cuts may be on the way depending on the funding situation.
At the June meeting, PART members also voted to raises per-trip fares from $2.00 to $2.40, and monthly passes from $60 to $74.50.
While that extra revenue might be a start, it never would be enough to make PART self-sustaining. Adding insult to injury, PART — which receives federal funding — cannot raise fares more than 25 percent without conducting a study to ensure that a hike will not violate riders’ civil rights under federal law.
Despite efforts to show that it is streamlining operations, board members still will have a tough time enhancing PART’s image.
Board member and High Point Mayor Becky Smothers’ concern about the cost of running ads in local media perfectly illustrates the position in which PART finds itself. Advertising is an expensive, yet necessary expense to attract more riders and increase revenue. And without the added revenue, PART possibly would no longer exist.
“Within a very short period of time, we’re going to run out of money,” Smothers said. “Something’s got to change.”
Sam A. Hieb is a contributor to Carolina Journal.