Editorial: Be careful with proposal to eliminate transit route

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 20, 2021

It’s easy to talk about government as if it’s a business, saying fees charged and revenue dwarf expenses incurred. It’s important to remember, however, that government’s most critical functions are ensuring public safety and providing public services, even when those services aren’t in high demand.

If an innate desire to help people and state law weren’t factors, government officials might easily count several services they’d eliminate because of financial considerations.

In the spirit of helping people who need it, Rowan County government should tread carefully when debating the elimination of the Rowan Express transit service. The services gives people a public transit option between China Grove and Landis and Salisbury. It helps connect Salisbury’s services to Concord and Kannapolis and provides a connection to the Amtrak station in Salisbury and Kannapolis.

To put it simply, it’s a useful service for people who need it.

But a decline in ridership during the pandemic — when public transit systems across the country saw declines in ridership — as well as higher-than-usual gaps between revenue and expenses appear to be major points in arguments made earlier this month to eliminate the service. Grants aren’t enough to cover the costs of operating the service, and it’s unclear when ridership will increase, said airport and transit director Valerie Steele during a budget workshop on May 6th.

Ridership was more than 1,110 every month from July 2019 to February 2020, reporter Natalie Anderson wrote in a story published Sunday (“Pandemic, transit funding prompt request to eliminate Rowan Express”). Numbers declined as low as 651 after the pandemic took hold. Because of the declines, the average cost of a ride was $71.82.

Using cost effectiveness is OK for services such as curbside recycling because county government continues to operate convenience centers that act as central collection points. Environmentalists might disagree, but recycling also isn’t an urgent need for a person’s well-being. Cost effectives, though, is a troubling way to judge transit services people use to get to doctor’s appointments, jobs and other critical destinations.

If county government is seriously considering eliminating Rowan Express because of a funding crunch, it should first think about whether other expenses and pet projects are a better way to save money. At a minimum, the county should ensure it provides an alternative option so current users of Rowan Express aren’t left to fend for themselves. It should make sure the service serves peoples’ needs, too.

The county might also just consider seriously investing in public transit and creating routes, stops and times that are more convenient for people who have trouble getting across the county or don’t have their own vehicles. Particularly as the county continues to grow, the need for public transit might increase with it. If services are well-funded and convenient for the county’s residents, they’ll use it.

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