Whitfield County's local bus service isn't the only one of its kind in the region, but it certainly is one of the most popular. Ridership is up by 35 percent over the past year, officials report, and the prospect for continued growth is bright. That's understandable. The service meets a critical community need.
Many individuals in Whitfield County depend on public transportation. Some individuals do not have cars. Others live in households with only one vehicle, which is typically used to transport a family member to work. Consequently, those who need to travel within the county -- to a doctor's appointment or to the grocery store, for instance -- view the bus service as their primary mode of transportation.
That's just fine with officials in Whitfield County, which took over management of the local bus service about a year ago. The county is working to make residents aware of the service. News releases, signs in both Spanish and English, and announcement at community meetings have spread the word. The result is positive. The service now makes more than 3,000 trips each month.
The service does not operate on a traditional route system, though some drivers have established regular runs to and from certain locations. Rather, the buses run to all points in Whitfield County so it can take riders wherever they want to go. Most trips must be scheduled in advance, but that's not proved to be an inconvenience to most riders. Almost all, drivers say, have memorized the 706-278-3606 phone number to schedule a pickup.
The fare seems to please riders as well. Currently it is $1.50 plus 30 cents per mile after the first five miles. Wheelchair passengers pay $3.85 plus 40 centers per mile after the first 10 miles. After Jan. 1, though, the fares will change to a flat rate of $2 per trip. That's a prospect that seems to please a majority of riders.
The service, which recently won the Frank J. Hill Service Award, an annual prize that recognizes one public transit system in the state, costs the county relatively little. Rob Hale, the county's finance director, says the total operational budget is about $500,000, but federal funds cover half the cost. Moreover, much of the county's $250,000 share is offset by revenues generated by the service.
In addition, much of the system's capital budget is covered by federal funds. All in all, it's a win-win situation for Whitfield County and its residents.
The county can provide residents and others with a vital service at a reasonable cost. Those who need regular transportation have a reliable, relatively inexpensive option available to them. And its all done through the use of public transportation, a proven method of reducing the noxious vehicle emissions that befoul the air and create health and environmental problems.