The adage that the gears of government move slowly is a common complaint. For some though the gears have moved too fast and now will leave other gears and axles stationary, with some residents as well.
Last Monday, two citizens spoke at the meeting of the Surry County Board of Commissioners. Scott Needham and Rachel Collins, both commissioners themselves from Pilot Mountain, were there to speak as individuals and not representatives of the town. They did so knowing what many others did not, the end is near.
They both rose with articulated arguments against Surry County’s decision to exit PART, the Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation, which oversees intercounty commuter transportation for ten counties in this area.
“The need for rural public transportation has historically been linked with providing mobility and accessibility to essential employment, goods, and services for older adults, low income, and persons with disability. I believe it is an important amenity to people and new companies coming to our town,” Collins offered.
Unbeknownst to speakers of previous meetings who rose to offer similar objections, what Commissioner Eddie Harris once called a “divorce” is much closer to its completion than its beginning.
PART Route 6 will cease operation after Friday, June 30 — the federally funded park and ride lots in King and Mount Airy, along with the dual lots in Pilot Mountain will sit idle.
There may be a glimmer of hope for the King lot, but for ones in Pilot Mountain and Mount Airy, if the county no longer wishes to levy the car rental tax, and has previously rejected a fee atop car registration to cover the county’s contribution — there is no recourse.
“We had found out very recently in the last couple of weeks,” Collins confirmed Wednesday. “I received an email from PART because I was a rider in the past. It stated on that email that it was the end of June.”
A date not chosen arbitrarily, rather one that coincides with the end of the fiscal year to make for a quick end to a divorce almost no one saw coming.
Launched in 2005, PART was meant to alleviate the strain of excess cars on the road, provide ease of access to those who lack a vehicle or license, and to help with the inflated cost of gas. Needham himself reminded that during the George W. Bush years when the program launched, “gas prices were high then, we thought. They are really high now.”
A discussion in earnest on the transportation authority began back in the fall when a grant application from PART reached the commissioners. The board was asked to give their approval for PART to apply for more federal dollars to expand the bus services along Route 6, The Surry County Express.
The board declined to give their permission for the grant application to move forward, and then began a discussion on the county’s participation in the authority. The board noted a drop in ridership, an add on sales tax on rental cars, and that moving citizens out of the county for work may be hurting local economies as reasons to not spend more federal dollars on a service they felt was not as successful as it once had been.
They sought guidance, which the county attorney in conjunction with legal counsel from PART communicated. In response, PART wrote a resolution pleading the board reconsider exiting the authority and sent their emissary, Scott Rhine, to the Feb. 21 board meeting. The resulting question and answer session did not change minds, and the board moved forward.
PART quietly released the following in early March:
“On Feb. 21, 2022, the Surry County Board of County Commissioners took action at their scheduled Board of County Commissioners meeting by unanimous vote to withdraw their membership from the Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation (PART). The County has requested that their membership be removed from PART by June 30, 2022.
“This release is an initial public notification that PART Express Route 6 service will no longer be operating, effective: July 1, 2022….
“The decision of the Surry County Board of County Commissioners to withdraw their membership from PART directly impacts the PART Territorial Jurisdiction and restricts PART from operating PART Express service in Surry County.” It is that language that is the nail in the coffin for Route 6.
A common objection to PART was that ridership numbers had declined significantly over the last years, but Needham told the board he spoke to Rhine since the board’s vote to exit and was told that ridership numbers are increasing. Collins suggested that the best way to improve ridership is to offer more stops, a point Rhine made weeks earlier.
On sending workers off to other counties for work, Needham countered, “I have heard that maybe we are shipping our employees out of the county, if that is so — those employees are then taking those dollars and bringing it home to Surry County where they improve their property which we get the benefit with property tax. Also, they spend that money here in our county which employs people here.”
“This happened so quickly,” Collins pointed out. “By canceling you are taking away opportunities, not only for low income and those with no driver’s license, but any other citizen in our town. We are offering a service to these constituents now that they may not be able to get anywhere else.”
She went on to note that citizens’ federal tax dollars are going to continue to fund PART whether Surry County is a member or not. “We do not want to lose out to Greensboro and High Point. We are going to be paying for a service we no longer get.”
“Our citizens in town limits pay double taxes, so I would argue that we pay a lot to the county for services we don’t use. I’m not arguing that,” she continued. “I don’t have school aged children, yet my taxes go to the school system.”
Needham seized on the point of taxation, “My tax rates aren’t going to get any lower, and no one else here’s taxes are going to get lower by us not having that service, but we won’t have the service.
For Collins, it is more than dollars and cents and was a highly personal affair as she recounted utilizing the service for access to cancer treatment in Winston-Salem. “From November 2019 – April 2021, I was undergoing chemo. I personally was glad the PART bus was there.
“The bus stopped right in front of the cancer center, so I had the ability to go to my treatments and if someone was picking me up, I didn’t have to burden them to chauffeur me both ways. The busses were clean, well maintained and ran on time.”
“While you may have not personally never have needed public transportation, or wanted to use it, there are many in our area that do.”