Salisbury to receive a grant to help expand transit services

Published 12:10 am Tuesday, December 27, 2022

SALISBURY — Last week the city announced it had been selected as one of the 11 cities in North Carolina that will receive part of a $10.4 million grant from the new Rural Surface Transportation Grant Program (RURAL) under the North Carolina Department of Transportation to support the Mobility for Everyone, Everywhere in North Carolina (MEE NC) Project.

The project will help provide improved transportation for the 11 rural cities by providing on-demand or point-to-point services that are tailored to each city’s mobility needs. The total amount for the three year grant will be evenly distributed among the 11 cities.

“It’s about improving mobility and connectivity,” Salisbury City Manager Jim Greene Jr. said. “So opportunity for us to provide a service that is more point-to-point. When you think about it, individuals that are in rural areas or individuals that have a difficult time getting to a transit stop, this service would improve the connectivity and mobility. Pick you up from your home and take you to your destination.”

Greene said improving the transit system in Salisbury has been one of city council’s main priorities as of late. Earlier this year, they met to go over plans for the upcoming fiscal year and specifically highlighted this point as one of the main issues to address.

“They set ‘Implement a micro-transit pilot study to determine the viability of alternative transportation'” as a priority, Greene said.

The total budget for the current bus transit system, that includes all costs, is $2.4 million, while the annual operating cost is roughly $600,000.

City staff and the transit department worked to apply for the grant that is “extremely important” to help fund the service. There are different ways to proceed with the service: the city can run it with their own staff and vehicles or privatize it and bring in a company to take over the service. Salisbury has hired AECOM to do a study that it will present to council at the council’s retreat on Jan. 25 and 26. The council can then determine the option best for Salisbury.

“As we evaluate the different models and the pros and cons of those models, I think there are things we have to take into account. Cost, competition, I think we have to be open and transparent in that,” Greene said.

The study will be based off of other North Carolina communities that have similar on-demand transit services. Initially, Salisbury will execute a pilot program for just one route to start out with that will go into East Spencer. This will provide baseline information on costs and actual operations that are unknown at this time.

“The grant is based more on a pilot on one route. So is there flexibility in the grant to do the whole system? How much more would that cost? Some of those decisions still have to be made,” Greene said.

Greene went on to say, “The first step was to identify some funding because this costs more to implement this service. The expectation is we’re going to have more users. If you can go from your house to employment or your house to the grocery store rather than going on a fixed route, you’re more likely to use that.”

If the study answers the city council’s concerns and the pilot program is a success, then further work will be done to grow the service. However, Greene advises that it will take time to do this. Salisbury will need to create an app for people to use to order a ride, come up with a communication plan, and work on efficiency once things are underway.

“For this service, we want to make sure it’s fair and equitable. There are folks right now who can’t afford transportation other than public transportation. So as we evaluate this, how again can we make sure it’s affordable and equitable and fair?” Greene said.