Originally published in the Greenville News on 2/12/17
One hour wait times. Insufficient geographic coverage. Hours of operation too short for most residents’ work, educational or recreational schedules. These are the primary reasons most Greenville County residents don’t use public transit and why life is difficult for those who must rely on it. If residents can’t reach the doctor’s office for preventive care, the grocery store for healthy foods, or a job to earn a livable wage, they won’t likely be as healthy. Since 2015, the Piedmont Health Foundation has focused on transportation and public transit as a way to improve the health of our community.
The public transit system operating in Greenville County, South Carolina, has come a long way since the City of Greenville began operating it as Greenlink in 2008. However, its limitations cause many to say it still has a long way to go.
But why is the service so insufficient? Why can’t the system serve more people and more frequently? Greenlink staff and the Greenville Transit Authority Board, which governs the transit system, say that the service they can offer is limited by the funds they receive for operations.
To better understand funding for public transit in Greenville, the Piedmont Health Foundation conducted a study using Federal Transit Administration data to compare Greenlink to transit systems in “peer communities” – areas in the Southeast that are similar in terms of population, geography, economy and culture.
As was reported in the Greenville News, Greenlink received only $3.76 per capita from local sources in 2015. The next lowest peer community, Charleston, received $17.79 per capita in local funds, with others receiving much more (e.g. Winston-Salem at $33.14, Greensboro at $40.70, and Birmingham at $49.22). Greenville County and the City of Greenville give an annual apportionment to Greenlink for its operations – 13% of its total annual operational funding. The median percentage of local funding for the other communities was four times that of Greenlink’s. Over time, funding from local sources to Greenlink has decreased. In 1991, the system received $730,724 from the City and County. In 2015, it was almost $144,000 less.
So, compared to peer communities, we are far behind.
But there is another important comparison to make: how does our funding compare to what is needed for a system that will meet our community’s needs? And how can that investment generate an overall economic benefit?
Answering those questions is at the top of the agenda for Greenlink’s new Director of Public Transit, Gary Shepard. Shepard began working with the City of Greenville in November, and he comes with an extensive background in economic development and public transit. I’ve had the opportunity to join him as he has met with elected officials, community leaders, business people and others, and he clearly states his belief that investments in transit are, in fact, investments in economic development.
Shepard says, “Every time Greenlink transports someone to work, not only are we helping that person provide for their family, but it allows for contributions to the income tax. Every time Greenlink transports a person to shop, not only are we helping that business owner attract customers, but these transactions add to the state sales tax. Every time Greenlink helps a patient travel to a medical appointment, we are ensuring that person receives care and increasing the quality of their life, but we are also contributing to preventative care efforts and lowering medical bills. And every time Greenlink can transport a student to an internship, we are not only adding to their educational experience, but also increasing the brain power of the region.”
Greenlink is conducting a Comprehensive Operational Analysis to take the first steps in designing that system. This assessment – recommended by the Piedmont Health Foundation’s 2015 mobility study and funded by us in partnership with the City of Greenville, Greenville County – will identify ways that Greenlink can redesign routes, adjust or relocate stops, use different vehicles, or modify service schedules to provide service in a more effective but budget-neutral manner. The next step is a Transit Development Plan to imagine the system of the future, one that can better serve a changing Greenville County with a denser downtown core, more congested corridors, and population that has a wider geographic spread.
Our community is at the top of most favorable lists when compared with the rest of the nation. We pride ourselves on innovation, public-private partnerships, and quality of life. The Piedmont Health Foundation believes that improving the mobility of all residents is the next big opportunity for demonstrating, yet again, Greenville’s can-do spirit.