For millions of people across the United States, the beginning of their day starts at a bus stop.
Go to any big city or town in America, and chances are there is a public transportation system set up for its residents. Whether they’re elderly, disabled, indigent, or their car’s in the shop—everyone’s got somewhere to go, and being able to catch a bus to get there is a big help. But for many living in the mountains of Western North Carolina, public transit is essential to getting from point A to point B.
“I believe in what we do here, Every day when we go home, there’s proof that we got somebody to where they needed to go, or wanted to go.” That’s Kim Angel, director of Macon County Transit. Angel has served as director of the agency since it was founded in late 1997, and says that public transportation has come a long way in the region. Angel says that public transportation has come a long way in Western North Carolina. And like most counties throughout the region, she explains it’s primarily used by senior citizens.
“We live in Western North Carolina. The elderly population is what it is. It is the majority. So, based on that, that tends to be a large segment that we serve. Our priority is the seniors, the disabled, the veterans—that’s the core of our service. That’s what started transportation, there’s always that basic need.”
But Angel is quick to point out that public transportation nonetheless lives up to its name by serving an ever-growing diversity of clients, despite budgetary restraints.
“Funding is an issue, especially in certain segments. All of us are seeing this growth in demand for employment transportation, and the funds just don’t exist to get people to work.”
While Macon County Transit receives an annual budget of about $1 million from local and federal grants, as well as the state's gas tax, and about $8,500 of it is given to help the agency take a growing number of people to work. The bottom line, Angel says, is that the role of public transportation is changing in the mountains, as more people are becoming aware of its availability.
“We’re going to [Southwestern Community College]. We’re going to [Western Carolina University]. The boomers have started aging in. They’re a little more independent. Still driving a little longer. It’s a different set of people. We actually have started seeing more of that mix. So, it’s not just that focus on medical anymore.”
As public transportation adjusts to the state’s changing economic climate, it also seems to be contributing to it, according to officials. According to Kai Monast, of the Institute for Transportation Research and Education, it currently supports roughly 11,000 jobs throughout the state, or more than $400 million in wages, and contributes more than $1 billion in business output.
In a written statement, Monast says “Community transportation systems must balance the competing goals of providing life-sustaining transportation services for the most-needy populations, with the desire to provide more efficient and effective general public transportation service.”
And while that balance continues to fluctuate, state leadership is taking notice. On September 26, members of the House Select Committee on Strategic Transportation Planning and Long Term Funding Solutions will be loading up into several public transit vans for a tour throughout Burnsville, to consider the challenges currently facing public transportation in the mountains.
And according to NC Public Transportation Executive Direct Albert Eby, public transit in North Carolina is integral to the state’s economy.
“North Carolina is fortunate to have a strong network of public transportation providers whose service to millions of passengers each year is critical to the state’s overall transportation network. Transit provides mobility for all of the citizens of our great state creating access to employment, education, and critical healthcare opportunities. Public transportation drives North Carolina’s economic engine by creating jobs, access to employment, cleaner air, and reduced congestion.“
While neighboring South Carolina averages around 12 million annual trips from public transportation, and Tennessee about 35 million, North Carolina clocked about 75 million trips last year—and over half a million of those trips were made in the state’s fifteen westernmost counties. And while overall trips through public transportation are down slightly from previous years--due in large part to lower gas prices and budget cuts, ridership numbers are up for agencies like Macon County Transit, as it continues to reach newer clients.
"So there are areas where we need funding, to enhance, improve, offer more," says Angel. "That being said, North Carolina is very fortunate in that the transit system here gets a lot of support. People are starting to realize that public transportation exists in rural areas."
For WCQS News, I'm Davin Eldridge.