BOCC eyes transportation needs

Posted on September 23, 2015 by Deborah Nelson

Santa Rosa County is entitled to a portion of ECAT and Okaloosa County transit money, Commissioners said at the September 8 commission meeting, and the Board’s studying ways to leverage those funds for local service.
Santa Rosa falls into both the Escambia and Ft. Walton Beach urbanized areas. Those areas receive State and Federal grant money for transit programs like bus service.
Santa Rosa accounts for 19 percent of Pensacola’s and 29 percent of Ft. Walton Beach’s commuter load, according to County Planner Shawn Ward. Santa Rosa has never requested a share of those funds, Ward said.
Santa Rosa’s existing, on-demand transportation disadvantaged program provided over 39,000 door-to-door trips in 2014. Most of the funding was provided by Florida’s Commission on Transportation Disadvantaged, per County information.
But it’s not enough to meet local needs, say officials.
Santa Rosa experimented with a bus service in 2011, but commissioners ultimately opted to shut it down. Between December 2010 and December 2012, the service logged 15,790 trips.
“They were slowly progressing, but they were progressing,” Milton resident and former County Commission candidate Wallis Mahute remarked. “I was really disappointed when the Board decided not to contribute that small match.”
“Personally, I feel like we didn’t give it enough of a chance last time to be successful,” Commission Chair Don Salter noted.
Local governments pay 50 percent of transit operating costs, according to Ward.
Santa Rosa could contract with ECAT and Okaloosa transit to extend those services across County line, and pay the local portion of added operating costs, he said.
To extend ECAT into Santa Rosa County, Escambia and Santa Rosa would need to work together to come up with proposed route and cost estimates, according to Escambia County Interim Community and Media Relations Division Manager Amanda Taft. Interlocal agreements would be used for any possible expansion. Service Development Grants from Florida Department of Transportation would take at least a year from the time of submittal, and the Transit Development Plan will not be complete until September 2016. Possible funding sources include State, Federal and local dollars. Santa Rosa County would pay 50% of the operating costs.
The Board’s also exploring programs with religious groups to provide on-demand services like medical appointments.
Since last July, the County has been working with the nonprofit group Bridges out of Poverty on ways to make public transportation work.
“What we have learned is that there really needs to be a multi-pronged approach to this,” Bridges out of Poverty President Dr. Karen Barber remarked.
“Several of our churches are ready to go,” Ferris Hill Baptist Church pastor Dr. Brian Nall noted. “They’re eager.”
Would churches get public dollars to run the service?
“That would be the discretion of the Board if the County wanted to contribute any funding but State and Federal transit funding would have to work through the local governments,” according to County Public Information Office Joy Tsubooka.
Lack of transportation squeezes the economy in a range of ways, say officials. That includes people with no way of getting to work and scholarship students who can’t get to college; as well as people who can’t make medical appointments, and those who, even if they could get to the grocery store, couldn’t haul the bags home.