New public transport to link county cities

Monday, July 16, 2007 | 12:06 a.m. CDT; updated 1:10 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Getting to work, the mall or a doctor’s office seems simple enough: hop in the car, catch the bus or walk, and you’re there. But for Boone County residents who can’t drive or don’t live near established public transit routes, basic transportation can be problematic.

Beverly Earley relied on Columbia Para-Transit to get her around town in her wheelchair since multiple sclerosis has kept her from driving. The schedule was too restricted to meet her needs, so she started to catch the Transit’s green line. The switch cost Earley her Para-Transit certification and some of her self-sufficiency.

“You’ve got to have some kind of life,” Earley said. “I feel like my options are limited because I can’t ride Para-Transit after hours.”

Tommy Williams lives on Mexico Gravel Road on the edge of Columbia’s city limits, about 1½ miles from the nearest bus stop at Indian Hills Park. But the only way to get there is to ride his wheelchair along the side of the road.

Addressing the long-term issue of convenient transit for Boone County is the goal of the Mid-Missouri Transportation Alliance, said Steve Tatlow, a coordinator of the nonprofit group, which was formed in 2004 to study transportation needs in the region.

Since releasing a needs study last year, MMTA has been working with communities in Ashland, Hallsville, Sturgeon, Centralia, Columbia and Jefferson City to create the Rural Boone County Pilot Project, a unified transit system that would run throughout the county.

The system would consist of two loops running five days a week. The northern loop would link Columbia, Sturgeon, Centralia and Hallsville, and the southern loop would provide service between Columbia, Ashland and Jefferson City.

The project would address the needs of residents who don’t have reliable transportation, especially senior citizens, people with disabilities and low-income people, Tatlow said.

According to a study done for the MMTA by LSC Transportation Consultants, 51 percent of transportation needs in Boone County are not met by existing services.

Although there are about 100 transportation providers in Boone County, said MMTA volunteer Trevor Harris, they don’t offer services to everyone. A church in Centralia, for example, might have weekend shuttles to Columbia, but the service is intended for church members and doesn’t provide a flexible schedule.

Harris said that as the population of Boone County gets older and moves out of city centers, the transit issues will only get worse, which makes coordination more important now.

“It’s a challenge to get your arms around something so huge, and there’s no one doing that right now,” he said.

Boone County Presiding Commissioner Ken Pearson thinks the transit project is a step in the right direction.

“They’ve done their needs assessment, and I think it’s a worthwhile venture,” Pearson said. “The question really comes down to how it can be funded.”

Funding for the project so far totals $206,680, but MMTA needs another $120,000. Tatlow hopes funding will become available through the Missouri General Assembly, the county commission, grants and other sources.

Should funding come in as planned, the transit program could be ready for service in January 2008, Harris said.

MMTA has also worked with the city of Columbia to coordinate existing public transportation services.

Part of the coordination includes a call center hosted by Columbia Transit and a Web site that would direct residents to the appropriate transportation service and help coordinate riders’ schedules with routes. The call center would provide follow-up to ensure the rider safely navigates the system, Tatlow explained at a July 9 public transportation meeting.

These services would allow all of Boone County’s residents easy accessibility to public transportation services such as OATS, Amtrak, Greyhound, JeffTran and Columbia Regional Airport, Tatlow said.

MMTA volunteers have been presenting their plans at community meetings. Public forums to gain feedback have already been held at a Columbia Community Development Commission meeting, a People First meeting at Boone County Family Resources in Columbia and at Hallsville Community Center.

“When we scheduled these forums, we made the distinction between stakeholders and decision-makers,” Harris said before the People First meeting that Williams attended. “These are the people who are going to use the service.”

Two more public forums are scheduled in Ashland and Centralia in the next two weeks. The next forum will be held at the Southern Boone County Senior Senior on Wednesday at 12 p.m. Another will be at Centralia City Hall on July 24 at 7 p.m.

So far, feedback from citizens and officials about the coordination and transit projects has been positive.

“I think as the price of gas continues to go up, there will be more ridership, and there will be more need for public transportation,” Pearson said. “I applaud Steve (Tatlow) and that group for making that effort.”

After hearing the plans at the Community Development Commission meeting, Earley was optimistic about the effects of the plan and what it could mean for public transportation.

“I rely on the city to maneuver around, and they can say ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ to me,” she said.

But if the MMTA plan were instituted, “I think they’d come around more. There’s a lot of people out there who feel the same way.”

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