Cities differ on transit service's performance

Saturday, August 18, 2007
Esther Nobus

A year after operations began, the Cape County Transit Authority is either rolling merrily along or spinning its wheels. The views east and west of Interstate 55 are different.

Cape Girardeau's mayor says the transit system has improved and provides a valuable service that can benefit from additional funding. The city council recently increased the city's annual subsidy to $86,000. But Jackson officials continue to get complaints about the transit system, particularly from seniors, and refuse to increase their city's $6,000 annual subsidy until service in Jackson improves.

The transit authority began operating June 30, 2006, after buying out Kelley Transportation, a taxi company that received government subsidies to provide reduced-fare rides to residents of Cape Girardeau. The transit authority provides reduced-fare rides in Cape Girardeau County and established a fixed-route bus system in Cape Girardeau. Since June 2006, the transit authority has provided 72,000 rides to bus and taxi passengers. From July 2006 through June 2007, the transit service received approximately $20,000 from bus fares and $292,000 in taxi fares.

Florance Bright is an elderly Jackson resident who has complained about the service to Jackson Mayor Barbara Lohr, to Jackson Alderman Larry Cunningham, to state Rep. Scott Lipke, R-Jackson, and to U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson. Bright charges that the improved transportation services promised when county voters approved a 5-cent property tax levy for senior citizens in 1991 are not being provided. Last November the Senior Citizens Service Fund Board, which allocates the tax, gave the transit authority $95,000, roughly 20 percent of the total revenue from the tax. She objects to a tax passed to help county seniors being used to help pay for Cape Girardeau's bus service.

Bright describes the transit service picking her up 45 minutes late for a doctor's appointment and worries that seniors who can't drive and don't know others who can give them rides are at the mercy of the transportation authority. That late ride cost her $25. "That's what we seniors are facing," she said.

Willa Dean Propst

The transit authority just began a new program that enables seniors to buy up to 12 one-way coupons a month for $3 each. They are good for a ride anywhere in the county. But Bright points out that the coupons must be purchased at the transit authority office on Wednesdays or at the Jackson senior center on the first Thursday of each month. To go buy 12 coupons costs her two coupons.

At the Jackson Senior Center, the transit authority has both fans and critics. Gladys Hale, 67, of Patton, Mo., and her husband drive into Jackson most weekdays. Just before 7 a.m., a CTA bus picks her up at a coin-operated laundry near her husband's job and takes her to the senior center. She says the driver is always courteous and on time.

Esther Nobus, 81, of Jackson primarily uses the transit system for doctor's appointments. "They have been reliable and they come in handy," she said.

Willa Dean Propst, 75, of Jackson has had equally courteous service, but she is concerned about the number of people who must spend $3 for a ride to the senior center, $3 on the meal and $3 to get home. "If you are on a limited income, you can only come one day a week," she said.

Another complaint is that toward the end of the month the transit authority has used up its allotted funding from the Area Agency on Aging, meaning a round trip that cost $20 early in the month can cost $30.

Gladys Hale

The transit authority needs to recognize that these area seniors are uncomfortable with changes and inconsistency, Propst said. "They need to come up with a stated fee so they know what the fee is going to be."

Cape Girardeau Mayor Jay Knudtson says Cape Girardeau officials aren't sensing similar discontent from their constituents. "The council feels things have drastically improved," he said. "They implemented a bus system we didn't have."

Acting on the mayor's motion, the council recently gave the transit authority half the additional $40,000 in funding asked for by interim executive director Tom Mogelnicki and told him to come back in six months. City finance director John Richbourg also joined the transit authority board as an ex officio member.

But when Mogelnicki asked Jackson for $27,000 more in funding, aldermen sent him away empty-handed.

Lohr said the complaints began when the transit authority transferred its offices from Jackson to Cape Girardeau last summer in anticipation of beginning the fixed-route bus schedule in the larger city.

"They kind of pulled up stakes and moved the entire operation to Cape. They have concentrated a great deal on the fixed-route schedule. There are very long waits when they call."

Lohr said elderly Jackson residents were accustomed to Kelley Transportation helping put their groceries in the van after shopping.

"I don't think that's a requirement. It's an extra little nicety that's not being done anymore."

Lohr said Mogelnicki told the Jackson Board of Aldermen that drivers often are running behind schedule and can't provide those kinds of extras anymore.

Lohr said Jackson won't provide more money to the transit authority until service improves. The city pays its subsidy quarterly. "The board intends to monitor the situation, and hopefully there will be better service and fewer complaints," said city administrator Jim Roach. He has asked Mogelnicki to keep the communication lines open. "I know the board of aldermen want to help," Roach said. "But it really isn't their operation, and for them to be blamed isn't fair."

From a Jackson perspective, the taxi service operated by Kelley Transportation prior to establishing the transit authority was better than the new one. "Some of that might be perception, some might be reality," Roach said.

"We've got very poor service now," Lohr said. "Basically that's what some of our seniors are saying. They are not giving us satisfaction. Why should we reward them?"

Cape Girardeau County Presiding Commissioner Gerald Jones lives in Jackson but does not share that point of view. While conceding that the transit authority has a way to go before fulfilling the transportation needs of the county, he said, "I think they're doing a great job." The fixed-route system in Cape Girardeau eventually will be established in Jackson if demand is strong enough, Jones said.

Extending regular bus service to Jackson is one of the transit authority's goals, said Doug Richards, chairman of the transit authority board. "We want to more buses running, more frequent schedules and to cover a larger geographical area," he said.

Richards said the transit authority also wants to develop a regular schedule serving communities in the county, such as Delta and Oak Ridge, so that people can arrange doctor's appointments and shopping based on the schedule.

Jones thinks Jackson officials are paying too much attention to complaints. "Those that are happy never tell you," he said. "Jackson is just concentrating on people who are unhappy. They're always going to be unhappy."

Mogelnicki has served as interim executive director since the CTA's first executive director, Jeff Brune, resigned in April. Richards said the search for a permanent director will begin in 30 to 90 days.

Richards said the CTA is also looking at providing rides to people who want to go to St. Louis for medical appointments. Moving the CTA offices from Broadway Plaza in Cape Girardeau to an independent building is four to seven years down the road, he said.

sblackwell@semissourian.com

335-5511, extension 137

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