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  • THIS WEEK'S NEWS

    Low-cost transit project fills existing vehicles

    By Jackie R. Broach
    Coastal Observer

    Georgetown County residents in need of inexpensive transportation may soon have a new way to get where they need to go.

    County Council is expected to consider a proposal next week to implement a “transportation on demand” program. It would make empty seats on human service vehicles, such as vans that transport patients for medical treatment, available to the public for a small fee.

    The details are still in the works as county staff gathers more information about what council would have to do to get the program up and running.

    “This has a lot of potential,” County Administrator Sel Hemingway told council when the idea was presented last week. “I think it’s a great idea and worthy of exploring.”

    The idea was brought to council by Pawleys Island Mayor Bill Otis, who served on the board of the Sisters of Charity Foundation.

    The group wants to work with the county to get the program in place.

    “What excites me is that when this program can be made to work by a champion and a county, it can bring existing resources to the table without anybody spending a lot of money,” Otis said. “Nobody has to buy a bus or a cab or anything. Existing infrastructure is used to meet transportation needs.”

    The foundation has already helped start and fund similar programs in Allendale and Bamberg counties. Otis told council the group is interested in developing a model that could be used on a statewide basis and he “offered Georgetown County as a pilot project.”

    “Overall, I have never seen a way for transportation to be provided for people who really need it at a cheaper cost than this,” Otis said.

    The foundation can provide grant money, but someone will have to take the reigns and act as a “champion” to organize the program and see it through. Part of council’s role, if it agrees to the program, will be to appoint someone to that task.

    Otis estimated the program would cost about $150,000 a year and $100,000 of that could be funded by outside sources.

    The foundation has agreed to provide $15,000 for planning of the program and $35,000 for the first year’s implementation, Otis said.

    Rochelle Ferguson, executive director of Palmetto Breeze public transportation service in Bluffton, helps manage the programs in Allendale and Bamberg and walked council through how those programs were started.

    “There are all sorts of ways that coordination can occur,” she said. “You just need to make it fit for your county.”

    With the existing programs, agencies that have empty seats on trips agree to sell those seats to Palmetto Breeze. A “mobility manager” employed by Palmetto Breeze keeps track of available seats and matches them up with passengers who dial a toll-free number to find out if there’s an available vehicle going their way.

    In the existing programs, Palmetto Breeze reimburses the transportation provider 70 to 80 cents per passenger mile and passengers pay $2 for every 10 miles of travel.

    “Providers make money off of this, because these are trips they’re already making,” Ferguson said. “We’re just helping them fill the seats.”

    The rates for reimbursement and fare if Georgetown County starts a program would be set by the county.

    The programs in Allendale and Bamberg have been very successful and received national attention, Ferguson told council. For the population there, “it really opened up a whole new world for them,” she said.

    One benefit was allowing residents reliable, inexpensive transportation to reach jobs further away than what they could otherwise manage.

    “This affects health care, it affects jobs ... it affects so many things,” said Thomas Keith, Sisters of Charity president. “I just hope the energy is there in Georgetown County, as it is in Allendale.”

    Council members suggested looking into partnerships with Williamsburg County and Coast Regional Transportation Authority.

    If council gets started now, Otis told them he suspects the county could have a program up and running by the start of 2010.

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