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Bus line, lifeline

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

It’s 6 a.m., well before the sun begins to streak the horizon east of Georgetown with light.

Working people are stirring though. A garbage truck with its yellow light flashing pulls into the Piggly Wiggly on Highmarket Street, and the driver goes inside to get a hot breakfast from the deli. He comes out the door eating from a Styrofoam box. Steel mill workers, in their green uniform pants and shirts, follow suit. Must be a good breakfast. Or it’s cheap.

Coast RTA bus No. 16 is scheduled to stop at Piggly Wiggly at 6:09 a.m. to pick up riders bound for Myrtle Beach and their jobs serving the tourist trade.

Samuel Grant is waiting in the dark morning at Piggly Wiggly. A longshoreman at 14, he’s retired from the steel mill. He qualified for a pension in 2003 and is waiting on another for the years he worked after a strike. Grant isn’t catching the bus today. He’s going to Charleston with a buddy to get auto parts from a junk yard.

“Man’s gotta do something,” he says.

He tells a first-time rider the bus stops beside Family Dollar, and the fare is 75 cents for those age 55 and over. He’s eyed the rider’s gray hair and guessed that he’ll qualify for the discount.

“I ride for fun,” he says. “Go all over Myrtle Beach for 75 cents.”

Assured that the bus would be along any minute, the rider takes his place by the road and waits. The time and temperature display at The Citizens Bank keeps track, glowing brightly in the dark. Thankfully, it’s warm, nearly 70 degrees at 6:09. A cold winter wind and rain would make bus riding a whole lot harder.

Five, 10, 15 minutes tick past, and the bus is nowhere to the found. It’s running late. Or not at all. The rider waits until 6:39 a.m., satisfied that a nice, even half-hour is long enough. The Georgetown-to-Myrtle Beach route actually starts at a transfer point at Hazard and Duke streets. There are no signs, no benches, no shelters. There’s a crowd gathered — 18 in all — beside a Hess gas station and in front of the Georgetown County Voter Registration office. Some drink sodas and coffee from the convenience store. McDonald’s across the street appears popular too from the cups.

Jerry Avant is wearing a security guard’s outfit: a polo shirt with an embroidered badge on the front, black shorts and tennis shoes. He works at Oceanside Village in Surfside Beach. Avant lives in Andrews and gets a car ride to Georgetown to catch the 6 a.m. bus. He says he used to ride Williamsburg Transit before Coast RTA took over and cut out the Andrews link.

This works for him — when the bus is on time.

“Our regular driver, Jonathan, is pretty good about getting here on time,” Avant says.

A woman with the name “Frankie” stenciled on her uniform shirt asks about the time.

“Five till 7,” she is told. “Everybody be late this morning,” she says.

Avant borrows a telephone from another rider and calls Oceanside Village, letting them know he’ll be there as soon as he can.

No big deal.

“You have to have patience,” Avant says. “Most days they’re on time.”

Most riders wait with crumpled dollar bills in hand for the fare of $1.50. Only one woman is reading a book. The rest just stand patiently, accepting the pace as part of everyday life. Standing in line is no harder than changing the sheets on a stranger’s bed.

At last, driver Wilbur Smalls pulls an express bus up to the curb at Duke and Hazard. His route started at Choppee, and his bus is full except for a few who exit. Smalls stops a man who offers 75 cents as fare. “You know better than that. This is the $2 bus,” he says with an enormous grin.

When the first-time rider drops in his money in the meter and asks about returning to Georgetown, Smalls stops him. There’s another bus that’s just pulled in. It goes to the transfer station at Oak Street.

Smalls pulls out a schedule and studies it. The Georgetown bus leaves Myrtle Beach at 11:30 a.m. and arrives at 1:05 p.m.

“Get on the right bus,” Smalls warns, “or you’ll be riding around Myrtle Beach all day.”

He clears it with the other driver that his passenger has paid the $2 fare.

There is an empty seat facing a sign that says, “No smoking, no drinking, no eating, no profanity, no tips.” Tipping the driver doesn’t seem to be on anybody’s mind now that we are more than 90 minutes behind schedule. Being late doesn’t seem to bother the riders. It’s a good enough excuse. Most curl up in their seats and close their eyes.

The bus stops at Dollar General in Pawleys Island, and four riders get off. A man with a big orange cooler gets off at the Hammock Shops. The driver knows his riders and makes their stops, even if they’ve taken the day off.

“Go on,” friends shout from the back.

Five people wearing white T-shirts with “STAFF” in blue lettering flag the bus down at Plantation Resort at Surfside Beach. A woman comes to the top step and asks about a ride to Georgetown. This bus won’t return for almost three hours. “Excuse me, ya’ll,” she says, climbing down the steps.

The bus rolls on, past Pizza Hut, Jiffy Lube and Taco Bell. There’s an RV park, and another. A seafood restaurant has a big plastic crab atop its sign. We must be getting into Myrtle Beach.

Two riders depart at the Sand Castle on Ocean Boulevard and another at Paradise Palace Resort. Five in matching T-shirts exit the bus at Palmetto Shores.

Outside there are joggers and rollerbladers moving about with ease. It’s such a struggle for some to move from one place to another to earn a living, and here are people moving so freely.

The bus arrives at Oak Street transfer station and empties out. It will continue on to Conway, and only a man in a wheelchair wants to ride.

The return bus to Georgetown is smaller than the full-sized vehicles bringing workers in the morning. The driver tells another that the morning bus had transmission trouble and will have to be towed.

Almost all the seats are filled, but a few get off and make room for others. It seems to work out. A man and woman get on, bound for an RV park. He advises her about the free lunches around town and she takes note. The price of gas is down to $3.19 at Murphy’s Express at the Garden City Connector. Hardly anyone notices. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a car.

A woman flags down the driver outside Walmart in Garden City.

The woman announces that she’s a senior as she plunks 75 cents into the meter. Her canvas bag has a few necessities from the grocery. She knows not to buy too much.

She’s studied the routes until she can go just about anywhere she wants from her home at St. Elizabeth Place in Pawleys Island. Not one to stay home, the woman walked to Ace Hardware from her apartment on the campus of Holy Cross-Faith Memorial Episcopal Church on her first day. She didn’t know about the bus yet, she admits. Now she can ride to the store — until her monthly money runs out.

The bus rolls on toward Georgetown, just a few minutes behind schedule. Most get off at Highway 17 and St. James Street, and it makes its last stop at the transfer station at Duke and Hazard. A rider asks the driver about a bus to Andrews.

It will be here in about three hours.

He’ll just have to be patient.

Lack of transportation hinders some service providers

Advocacy groups for children, the sick and the unemployed say they all run into the same brick wall eventually: a lack of timely, reliable, affordable public transportation in Georgetown County.

Suzanne Harris of Heritage Plantation addressed members of County Council last month asking for changes in the bus service provided by Coast RTA in Georgetown and Horry counties. Georgetown County provided $250,000 to supplement the bus services last year. Harris was representing the Pawleys Island-Litchfield Transportation Committee, a grass-roots group that wants the buses to leave Highway 17 and make stops in some of the communities where riders live.

Harris said she hears the complaints about empty buses running up and down Highway 17, but more often she sees them nearly full. “Many people rely on the bus for their jobs,” she said, “but there are many more not young enough or healthy enough to walk out on Highway 17 and flag one down.”

She said her committee would like to see a Coast RTA bus go down Petigru, Waverly and Martin Luther King Road rather than buzzing along Highway 17. Her committee has also recommended bus stops at Holy Cross-Faith Memorial Episcopal Church for residents of St. Elizabeth Place and people visiting Smith Medical Clinic and at the new Waccamaw Community Center at Parkersville Park. The church, she said, has agreed to provide space for a bus shelter, and the county could do the same at the community center.

“The county supplements Coast RTA,” Harris said, “but I’m not sure there’s anybody coordinating with Coast and holding them responsible. We give them the money and say we’ve done our duty.”

Shari Smith, who runs the Barefoot Barista in Pawleys Island, is a member of three committees that have transportation challenges. The Early Learning Coalition, Georgetown County Out of School Time and the Human Resources Committee all face the problems of serving people with no means of transportation.

“We have all these great programs,” Smith said, “and they are prevented from accessing them because of a lack of transportation. Maybe we can get them there, but how do they get home?”

The Early Learning Coalition includes Miss Ruby’s Kids. The Georgetown County Out of School Time, part of the national “Lights On After School” program includes Teach My People and the Boys and Girls Clubs run through the Salvation Army. Teach My People, she said, has its own bus for children but parents have trouble attending functions if they can’t find a ride.

Smith says it will take a combination of solutions to solve the county’s transportation problems. “The bus line doesn’t run out into the county, but we are looking at ways to extend the usefulness of school buses and the RTA system for our programs.”

Linda Bonesteel of the Georgetown Community Care Network, funded by grants from the Duke Endowment and Georgetown Hospital System, said her transportation committee is putting together an inventory of transportation services for people needing medical care.

“Lack of transportation impedes access to medical appointments, not only primary care but radiation, chemotherapy and dialysis,” she said. “There are services available, but there are gaps too.”

Bonesteel said her committee talked about coordinating available medical transportation and discussed putting information on a 211 system, having a central call number or web site. “How do we get that out?” she asked. “We need to put together a grid of who does what for whom.”

Friendship Place in Georgetown, for instance, runs a van to the Smith Medical Clinic one day a week. Logisticare, a medical transport firm, contracts through Medicaid. The Veterans Administration provides limited transportation for vets. The Coast RTA bus makes a 10-minute stop on its Myrtle Beach-to-Georgetown route at Waccamaw Community Hospital.

Harris said Coast RTA has town meetings in Horry County to help people read schedules and routes and provide pointers on how the bus can serve them.

Logisticare, she said, would prefer that people take the bus rather than a $200 ambulance ride, but congestion at the hospital encourages immediate transport rather than waiting on a taxi or a bus.

“Social workers,” Harris said, “need to become better acquainted with the bus service. Coast is trying to provide service, and here are people who need it. We’re not bridging it together very well.”

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