By Catharin Shepard •
Staff writer •
Hoke County’s transit service will continue to provide door-to-door pickup for residents, while considering the option of adding fixed routes to some of the county’s busiest locations.
Hoke Area Transit Service (HATS) employees, riders and supporters packed the commissioners’ room last Tuesday night to voice concerns over a proposal to implement a bus stop and pre-set route service, and change the HATS service hours.
The changes proposed to have the HATS vans and buses travel pre-set routes each day, stopping on a schedule at bus stops throughout parts of the county. The proposed changes would have allowed the transports to deviate from the route and pick up riders within three-quarters of a mile from the nearest stop. The changes also proposed to alter the service hours from 3 a.m.-7 p.m. to have a later start time in the mornings.
Even before opening the floor to comments from the audience, commissioners made it clear that they did not want to take away any vital service from Hoke residents. Commission Chairman James Leach, Commission Vice Chairman Harry Southerland and Commissioner Tony Hunt questioned HATS Director Nancy Thornton about what effect the proposed changes might have had on residents who rely on the service.
The scheduled bus route idea was meant to provide more opportunities for young people to take advantage of HATS services to get to heavily trafficked locations, Southerland said. It wasn’t meant to take any services away from seniors.
“The intent for that from the commissioners is the young people who can get around and get to these bus stops and go shopping and go to work, the bus stops are for them. But for our seniors who are disabled who cannot make it to a bus stop, it is the intent of this board that we continue to pick them up from their home. That’s our intent,” Southerland said.
HATS could do that with staggered vehicles, Thornton said. The transit system would also need to continue providing contracted transportation for other entities such as Teen Court and Monarch in Hoke County.
The service would likely need to add more vehicles to its fleet to be able to add the routes in addition to the pickup service, Leach said.
“I see where you’re saying seven buses or vans, and you’re going to need many more to make this happen. I can see you doubling that number, that’s certainly not going to cover the miles of Hoke County,” the chairman said.
Many elderly and disabled individuals rely on HATS to get to grocery stores and medical appointments, while younger riders use the service to get to school or work, several people said during the hearing.
Darryl Crouch, a disabled Army veteran, asked commissioners to continue the pickup service.
“Whatever we add, if we add this route system, do not take away what we currently have,” Crouch said. “I’ve been riding on the bus system since 2014, and the primary customers I see are the elderly, the people without vehicles, students that lose their bus privileges, and people of a lower economic strata, because the affluent very seldom use those services.”
Catherine Wyatt was one of several HATS employees who addressed the board on the matter.
“I know how important the service is for the county of Hoke. Many people use this service to go to work, and they couldn’t get a job otherwise because they don’t have transportation,” she said.
Raeford resident Mary Cagle said she uses HATS to go to the gym for therapy, and for grocery shopping. Removing door-to-door service would leave her effectively stranded, she said.
“That’s going to leave me out, that’s going to leave me at the house looking at the four walls,” she said.
Other speakers included a dialysis center employee who said many of her patients use HATS to get to dialysis, and long-term HATS employees who spoke on behalf of their riders.
After hearing from about 10 speakers during the public hearing, the board members closed the hearing and did not approve the proposed changes to the service. The commissioners asked Thornton to instead revisit the plan and look at adding daily routes, while also maintaining door-to-door pickup service.
Southerland additionally asked Thornton to look at HATS employees’ pay schedules to make sure they are fairly compensated. The board earlier this year passed a measure to bring all county employees up to at least a $15 minimum wage over a two-year period.
The board did not discuss the costs involved with potentially adding more vehicles and employees to HATS.
By Catharin Shepard •