Going places

Cruising through Hendersonville in an air-conditioned minibus, East Flat Rock resident Lillie Ricketts gave the public transportation experience a thumbs-up.

“I think it’s nice, real nice,” offered Ricketts, ticking off the new public bus’ attributes as it motored down Spartanburg Highway. Those included comfortable seats, a pleasant driver, room for the handicapped and — at 50 cents a ride — reasonable bus fare.

Ricketts was one of a small group of community members, volunteers and elected officials who gathered June 10 to launch Henderson County’s new public bus system, Apple Country Transit.

“I see this as the first step in gradually reducing our dependence on the automobile,” Hendersonville Mayor Fred Niehoff told the group.

After a short ceremony, the group piled into the new buses — which still had that new bus smell — for a short trip to East Flat Rock Park for lunch.

Routes for the public began the next day, via two “light transit” buses (which can carry 16 to 20 passengers) and a van. Buses run hourly from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, around Hendersonville. In addition, folks in Etowah and Edneyville can ride into Hendersonville in the morning and early afternoon, returning in the afternoon and early evening. The system even has several “park and ride” sites — mostly grocery-store parking lots — where people can park their cars and hop on a bus. The Visitor’s Center in downtown Hendersonville is serving as a bus transfer station.

An established nonprofit agency, Western Carolina Community Action, is running the new bus system as one of its divisions. For the past 20 years, WCCA has provided on-demand transportation to elderly, disabled and low-income adults and to Head Start kids, said David White, the agency’s executive director.

And unlike the free, tourist-oriented “trolley” WCCA ran in downtown Hendersonville last year, Apple Country Transit is designed to serve city and county residents who need transportation to work, shopping or elsewhere.

“Mainly, it’s to give people without ready access to a vehicle a means of getting where they want to go,” said John Antrim, a recently retired traffic engineer who helped spearhead the project.

Apple Country Transit’s kickoff marked the culmination of years of work and anticipation — plus a 10-week flurry of activity to put the buses on the road after a $262,000 federal grant was approved to pay for it, said Apple Country Transit Transportation Director Javonni Burchett.

No city or county funds are being used for the system, she noted. Local matching funds — a grant requirement — came from Wal-Mart, which chipped in $10,000. In addition, the Mad Scientist printing company contributed $4,800 (for benches) and McDonald’s gave $1,000 (for signs).

The catalyst came last fall when Burchett learned that federal grant money for public transportation was available through the N.C. Department of Transportation.

With the help of a local transportation committee, Burchett submitted a proposal requesting a half million dollars. Since that would have eaten up about a third of the money available for the entire state, DOT officials asked for a scaled-down version. After six revisions, Burchett submitted the final application in February. The grant was approved in March and local organizers were told to have the service operating by June.

A new public transportation committee was formed to work out the logistics. The required quick turnaround left little time for disagreement, Burchett said.

“We just had a lot of go-getters,” Burchett remarked. “Henderson County’s wanted this for eight years. When they said you could have it, there’s a lot of energy generated.”

The state Department of Transportation has guaranteed three years of support for the system, noted Burchett.

Aside from mobility, supporters of the transit system see other benefits — namely in getting more vehicles off the road so that air pollution doesn’t get any worse.

“The success of this project has a lot more far-ranging effects than just in and of itself,” said Eva Ritchey, a community activist involved in Henderson County transportation issues. “You can’t tell people you can have all the cars you want and breathe too. Either we’re going to cut vehicle miles traveled in Western North Carolina, or we are going to have to quit breathing.”

The success of the bus service will depend on having enough riders, suggested Antrim, adding: “We’re going to be very disappointed if these buses are running around virtually empty all day long.”

To help get things going, organizers planned to distribute 2,000 free bus passes to institutions including Pardee Hospital, Blue Ridge Community College, and the county’s Department of Social Services and Health Center.

Four days into the new service, Burchett was pleased to report that 40 to 60 people per day have been riding the new buses.

And Burchett is already getting requests to expand the service, especially from folks in Mills River. That’s a possibility, she said, since the DOT has promised to provide an additional bus if 100 people in a neighborhood get together and buy annual bus passes. Though the passes aren’t available just yet, Burchett plans to sell them for $25 each in a system patterned after the one in Boulder, Colo. (which she learned about at a recent transportation workshop held in Asheville).

Henderson County resident Lucille Babbitt, who was strolling through the Blue Ridge Mall last Monday, said she’d try the bus if the route came close enough to her house in Terry’s Gap to be useful.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Babbitt remarked. “I think mass transit is the answer to a lot of our problems.”

Ricketts, a WCCA board member, has high hopes for Apple Country Transit.

“I believe it’s going to be a great help to the community,” she declared. “I believe it will succeed.”

For more info on Apple Country Transit, call 698-8571.

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