Some say the way Lash Drive Connector was set up doomed it

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 11, 2011

By Mark Wineka
At the Salisbury Mall Thursday, Albert Watkins waited for a city bus on a bench outside The Dollar Tree.
A nine-passenger van — the “Lash Drive Connector” — had just transported him from his apartment at Crosswinds, and Watkins acknowledged hearing rumors that the connector might be eliminated for budgetary reasons and low ridership.
“If they do away with it,” he said, “I’ll probably have to give notice that I’m moving.”
In operation since Feb. 23, 2010, the Lash Drive Connector runs from 6 a.m.-6:45 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, linking residents from Crosswinds Apartments, Lakewood, Laurel Pointe, Hidden Cove and Fleming Heights to the nearby Food Lion and Salisbury Mall.
From the mall, they can make connections to a regular-sized city bus, which arrives at The Dollar Tree on the hour.
“They’re a bunch of good people who could surely use the service,” said the connector’s regular van driver, Gerald Knox. “The older folks, especially. It’s a good thing for them.”
Lash Drive, located off Statesville Boulevard behind the mall, is the one-way-in, one-way-out street that serves an estimated 1,188 residents — many of them seniors dependent on city buses.
They rely on the connector and city transit to get them to doctor’s appointments, drugstores, the downtown and grocery stores. A few Livingstone College students also use the bus service to travel to and from school.
But city officials say an average of only 13 people a day have been using the Lash Drive Connector over the past 10 months, at a cost of $20.65 a rider.
Meanwhile, the city faces a sharp price increase in its contract with MV Transportation, the company which also provides RITA van service for Rowan County.
Salisbury Transit Manager Rodney Harrison reported last week the connector cost will rise from $21.50 to $30 an hour for a total of $43,260 in the new fiscal year. At the same City Council meeting, neither Mayor Susan Kluttz nor City Manager David Treme sounded optimistic that the connector route could be saved.
But some users of the Lash Drive Connector say it was never set up to succeed.
One problem, Mary Adams said Wednesday, is that it only runs two days a week.
“That doesn’t work if you have a job working five days a week or you’re going to school five or six days a week,” she said.
Another unintentional thing that maybe has discouraged ridership has been the use of the RITA van. People associate the RITA vehicles with running on an appointment schedule and serving only seniors and the disabled.
“People can’t tell if that’s a bus or not,” Watkins said.
The Lash Drive Connector van is meant as public transit for everyone at 50 cents a ride for seniors and $1 per trip for others, with free transfers to the regular city bus route at the mall.
“It’s confusing to a lot of people,” Adams, an 82-year-old resident of Crosswinds, said of the connector. “… I’m sure the city is working hard on it, but there’s something lacking.”
Adams was an original petitioner for Lash Drive bus service in 2009. She compares the city’s effort to giving someone a biscuit and feeling satisfied that it has fed that person for the whole day.
This past Tuesday, Adams used the connector to hook up with a city bus and go to the downtown post office. Adams relies on a walker much of the time.
But on days when the connector doesn’t run, Adams drives her own car to run errands and make it to appointments. “I’ll miss it a lot, because gas has gotten so high now,” she said.
Knox, the connector’s driver, had a rather slow morning Thursday, thanks in large part to a steady rain. During the hour the Post rode with Knox — from 9 to 10 a.m. — the connector had no passengers, but Knox reported later carrying almost a dozen riders before the early afternoon.
“I’ve had more riders today” than usual, he said then.
Knox’s route includes three bus stops on Lash Drive — at Crosswinds, Fleming Heights and Lakewood. He waits about 10 minutes at each location. There are no shelters at these roadside stops — another deterrent to ridership, especially for older people, Knox says.
After his stops on Lash Drive, Knox steers the van onto Statesville Boulevard, turns right into the mall and makes his next stop between Belk and Baylee’s Steakhouse. Then it’s on to The Dollar Tree at 10 minutes before each hour.
At 10 minutes past the hour, it’s over to the Food Lion at Salisbury Marketplace and back to Lash Drive for a repeat of the route he covers 12 times during the day.
More people use the stop at Food Lion than you might expect, Knox said.
“You got to eat,” he added, “and that’s one thing we have no choice about.”
Knox said it’s only his personal opinion, but losing the connector route would hurt a lot of people he has come to consider friends.
“It’s a good thing,” he said of the connector. “It really is. I’ve gotten to meet a lot of good people.”
When he has the extra change, Albert Watkins, who is legally blind, often will rely on the connector to get him to the mall. “If I don’t have the money, I borrow it from my neighbor,” he said.
On days when the connector isn’t available, Watkins will sometimes maneuver his “power chair” all the way from Crosswinds.
On this day, Watkins needed to go downtown to Rowan Helping Ministries to pick up some medicine.
Archie Reid, a Laurel Pointe resident, said he appreciated the city’s trying to help his Lash Drive area, but ridership numbers are low because the connector only runs twice a week.
He said the area has single parents and seniors who would miss the service.
If the connector is eliminated, the closest bus stop will be a mile away, Reid added.
Adams said she would like to challenge the mayor and other City Council members to walk with her from Lash Drive to the mall, ride a bus to the transit transfer station near the depot and walk from there to downtown stores.
“I would just love it,” she said. “When I was their age, I thought I had the world in the palm of my hand. But it won’t be long until they are where I am. What are they going to do? They are going to be seeing it like I’m feeling it.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.