MILLEDGEVILLE — Public transportation facilitates visits to and from medical appointments or grocery gathering for numerous Baldwin County residents.
For 18 years, the Section 5311 Rural Transportation program, managed through the county fire department, has operated with an objective to provide cost-effective mobility throughout the community.
Dr. Jim Lidstone, the director for Georgia College’s Center for Health & Social Issues, said public transit offers a vital community health service.
“In communities like ours, this is probably the only option for public transportation that people have,” Lidstone said. “The population that we are trying to reach here probably doesn’t have reliable transportation so this is one of the only ways they can get to appointments and things like that.”
Baldwin Transit consists of two vans based at the Allen Memorial Drive fire station.
One transit services van outfitted for ambulatory persons features a wheelchair lift and has room for just one onboard, as well as eight passengers. The other vehicle is a regular 15-passenger van.
Drivers carry out transport services from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Rides costing $2 per passenger per trip are reservation only.
Baldwin Transit dispatcher Melody Gaston said each vehicle sees around 27 people daily totaling a $106 fare revenue average for both vans.
Gaston said a recent Tuesday high of $132 is the most ever. Both drivers successfully transported 32 passengers each and were back on the lot at 4 p.m., according to the proud dispatcher.
Most destinations are for service center for children with disabilities, dialysis, medical appointments and work. Gaston said the drivers understand medical conditions of their passengers.
“Both are the best I’ve had. The customers love them,” Gaston said.
RouteMatch software helps the dispatcher preschedule van trips because the program is constantly booked. Citizens wanting the Baldwin Transit service are encouraged to prearrange pickups. Many customers have days and times planned for an entire year in RouteMatch.
“We are kind of busy. Whoever we pick up we have to take back home usually,” Gaston said. “We try to keep everyone in a certain area when we pick up in the morning.”
County transit driver Jerome Marshall estimates serving more than 80 people between both vehicles on a crazy day. He said most clients are senior citizens or residents from the veterans home. The average trip time is five to 20 minutes, according to Marshall.
Drivers use North Jefferson and the Highway 441 bypass, working county zones as a team.
Numbers are up lately though not all callers get served depending on time and location. Sometimes, folks must wait.
The dedicated driver said it’s tough not getting to everyone. Often, callers near the county lines are just too far away.
“It’s hard turning people down. Medical people are really important to me,” Gaston said. “Now with this program, the phone is constantly ringing. Every five to 15 minutes we are picking somebody up. People don’t understand we aren’t a cab.”
Gaston said a bigger computer screen and another van could boost the program tremendously.
“I wish we could get another handicap van. We’ve tried to adjust our handicap van to take two wheelchairs,” she said.
County Manager Ralph McMullen said the system needs help, but few options seem financially doable right now.
“We are getting calls and probably having people that we can’t serve,” McMullen said. “To be able to redesign it, we really need additional resources. At this time, those resources are not available.”
March 19, the Baldwin County Commissioners backed a Georgia DOT grant renewal application to continue the program. A $101,100 total budget allocation begins in July.
With 10 percent in expected fare revenue subtracted, the county and federal operating contributions are $45,495 for this fiscal year. This money covers van maintenance, fuel and the drivers.
All county officials questioned agree the rural transport program is essential though inefficient.
Commissioner Johnny Westmoreland, District 5, and McMullen sat with the Middle Georgia Regional Commission (MGRC) recently pushing a proposed Regional Transportation Program initiative. Designed to run through the MGRC, the plan wanted to pool state resources to provide more efficient rural transport services.
The MGRC informed the Baldwin County Commissioners earlier this month as of July 1 it would no longer be the prime contractor with the Georgia Department of Human Services (DHS) for the provision of transport throughout the region, which in effect killed the initiative.
“By pooling these funds, you could have a larger more efficient operation. Personally, that is the way to go. That would bring more resources to the table. We were very hopeful, until we got the bad news,” McMullen said.
Westmoreland said the system would continue as always though brainstorming solutions like working with Georgia College or local taxi companies might help.
“I know the program is needed. I do have some problems with it. It’s costing the county some money. It’s money we really don’t have,” Westmoreland said.
Other commissioners see failed marketing as the revenue enemy.
“I would love for more people to know more about it. That way we could utilize more people taking advantage of it,” Commissioner Tommy French, District 2, said. “Those few extra dollars would go further. Several people have no idea it even exists.”
Commission Chair Sammy Hall, District 3, suggests a fee increase would help the current operating procedure.
“It’s costing us $9 per rider per trip. That’s an extremely expensive operation in my opinion,” Hall said. “I’d like to see some sort of improvements to increase ridership or the fee.”
Hall admitted more riders would most likely stress Baldwin Transit’s two vans to a breaking point considering they already struggle to reach all clients. The county chairman welcomes help from other parties toward finding a method to purchase another van.
Gaston said a price increase would hurt the average passenger on a fixed budget.
“It may not seem like much, but to many it’s all they have,” French said.
Westmoreland is aware of the concern about the money side, and the people that can’t afford anything else. The District 5 commissioner also said many senior county residents in poor health don’t need to drive themselves.
“We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. We need to make it a system that works and pays for itself,” Westmoreland said.
French said he prays the state sees a need to assist Baldwin County and others by establishing the aforementioned regional transportation system utilizing group cost cutting.
For now, the enthusiastic Baldwin Transit staff continues running the two vans as best it can filling a vital community transportation void. Call 478-445-2941 to schedule a county ride.
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