With advisory committee vote, plan to discontinue Rowan Express transportation service moves forward

Published 12:10 am Thursday, May 27, 2021

SALISBURY — Rowan County is continuing to move forward with plans to eliminate the Rowan Express service from its public transportation offerings.

Created in 2009, the Rowan Express has a fixed route that provides transportation from Salisbury area transit to Concord Kannapolis area transit with stops in Landis and China Grove. Additionally, the Rowan Express provides connection to Amtrak stations in Salisbury and Kannapolis.

Citing declining ridership and high operating costs, Rowan County Transit and Mid-Carolina Regional Airport Director Valerie Steele made the case to discontinue Rowan Express during the county’s budget work session May 6. During a meeting last week, the Rowan Transit System Advisory Committee came to the same conclusion and voted unanimously to recommend discontinuing the service.

“With all of the options presented and what we talked about, we all felt this was going to be the best course of action for moving forward,” said Edward Hailey, chair of the Rowan Transit System Advisory Committee.

The five-person committee is composed of members who represent community stakeholders that might be especially reliant on public transportation, including Nan Buehrer, executive director of Rufty-Holmes Senior Center, and Gary Yelton, executive director of Rowan Vocational Opportunities.

Hailey said committee members felt like Rowan Express no longer seemed viable economically due to its recent dip in ridership, which has created budget shortfalls.

Rowan Express costs $1 to ride, but it’s free to Rowan County employees or those who transfer from the Salisbury bus system or Concord-Kannapolis area transit. 

The service was previously funded in part by grant money from the Rural Operating Assistance Program. However, when that program was cut for fiscal year 2021, Rowan Transit utilized CARES Act and Home and Community Care Block Grant funding to continue the program. Steele said it is uncertain at this time if the Rural Operating Assistance Program is in the state’s budget this year, but could be cut again.

Data provided to the Post show that pre-pandemic ridership on Rowan Express exceeded 1,110 each month from July 2019 to February 2020. During COVID-19 pandemic, however, ridership declined significantly, dropping to as low as 611 in January and staying below 900 except for October.

From July 2020 to March 2021, Hailey said the operating cost of Rowan Express was $163,696. During that same time, Hailey said only $5,428 in fares were collected, which accounted for just 3% of the budget and left the service with net expenses of $158,816. 

“That doesn’t seem economical to the committee and a good use of county money for the service,” Hailey said.

Many of the people who rely on Rowan Express use the service to commute to and from work. While Hailey said eliminating the service may make it tough for some to reach their jobs, he believes there are other options, including ride share services and other transit systems like Amtrak.

Instead of funding Rowan Express, Hailey said the committee believes Rowan Transit should focus on providing “life-sustaining” trips to individuals through its service that picks up enrolled individuals from their homes.

“Rowan Transit’s most widely used service is the door-to-door pickup for individuals who need assistance and really don’t have other ways to take life sustaining trips like going to the grocery store, going to medical appointments, doctor appointments,” Hailey said. “Some people use it to go to the ‘Y’ for exercise. That’s more of what we feel is the need of the citizens for those life sustaining trips.”

Steele said there are currently 16 individuals on a waiting list for dialysis transportation and that Rowan Transit would like to begin providing them with service and avoid any future waitlists. Funding that was previously directed to Rowan Express, she said, could help make that happen.

“We are doing the public hearing, for one, to make it clear what the intention is and to give stakeholders an opportunity to provide public input, to be transparent in what we’re doing,” County Manager Aaron Church said.

The county’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which has not yet been adopted by commissioners, does not currently include funding for Rowan Express.

About Ben Stansell

Ben Stansell covers business, county government and more for the Salisbury Post. He joined the staff in August 2020 after graduating from the University of Alabama. Email him at ben.stansell@salisburypost.com.

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