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Financial Troubles for P.A.R.T.

Commuters in Winston-Salem board a P.A.R.T. express bus bound for Greensboro
Jeff Tiberii

The Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation is having its busiest year ever. The bus service connecting Winston-Salem, Greensboro, High Point and many smaller communities in the Triad is 9 years old. Yet despite strong ridership P.A.R.T. is in financial trouble.

On a recent weekday morning about a dozen commuters board a P.A.R.T. Express bus traveling from Greensboro to downtown Winston-Salem. Passengers say they use the service to avoid driving in traffic, cut down on pollution and save hundreds of dollars …

Regina Doran: "I would say that honestly, I’m saving about $250 a month I think that if people would just try it they would like it. I was not a bus person prior to riding PART. "

The regional bus service connecting cities within the Triad serves a similar role to the Triangle Transit Authority. It compliments individual bus services in the Triad, while extending to rural counties. For the first time P.A.R.T. is on pace to serve half a million riders this year alone.Executive Director Brent McKinney says the organization has had an increase in overall ridership every year since 2002.

Brent McKinney: "P.A.R.T is the highest occupied bus system in the state of North Carolina. We carry an average of 8.4 people on our bus at all times. During peak times we will have people standing up on our bus."

But even with high ridership P.A.R.T. is in financial trouble. According to McKinney the organization isn’t generating enough revenue. And if P.A.R.T. doesn’t receive commitments of 1.1 million dollars in funding by the end of this month, it will pull eight of its 47 off the roads.
This year fares have already climbed from two to three dollars and monthly passes have jumped from 60 to 90 dollars. High Point Mayor Becky Smothers serves on the P.A.R.T. Finance Committee. She says fare increases are only part of the solution. 

Mayor Becky Smothers: "There reaches a point that increasing fares diminishes the number of people who ride… Public transportation cannot pay for itself. It needs to be subsidized"

Along with fares, P.A.R.T. collects grant money from rural counties and a 5-percent tax on rental cars. But rentals have dropped at PTI Airport and throughout the region. Five years ago the rental car tax brought in more than four million dollars. This year, it will generate just 1.3 million dollars.

By comparison, Triangle Transit, received 8.7 million dollars last year from its 5-percent rental car tax. Triangle Transit also benefits from a vehicle registration fee. 

Brent McKinney: "They also have a $5 annual license fee on every vehicle and they put all of that money on transportation. So you can see here in the Triad we’re a little behind on funding our public transportation."

Wake, Durham and Orange counties contribute 5.5 million dollars to Triangle Transit through vehicle registration fees. Currently, only Randolph County pays a vehicle tax to P.A.R.T. – 139 thousand dollars a year. Commissioners in other Triad counties are meeting this month to vote on providing P.A.R.T. with additional funds.

Some leaders have suggested consolodating local bus systems with P.A.R.T. as an alternative, but that wouldn’t be a short-term solution.
In the meantime, several local hospitals as well community colleges are considering contirbutiung funds because their employees, patients and students rely on P.A.R.T. But Mayor Smothers says ultimately, the counties which P.A.R.T. services are going to have to provide more money – and soon.

Mayor Smothers: "The fact that the ridership is still as high as it is, is remarkable, given the number of jobs that have been lost in the area. At the same time, it’s incumbent I think for us to maintain a public transportation structure – in which there has been a lot of money invested – to let it now just wither and die, would be a gross misjustice."

P.A.R.T. has already amended its budget five times this year. By the end of the October the organization says it will move forward – either with an additional 1.1 million dollars of revenue, or with a reduced schedule.

Jeff Tiberii is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Jeff joined WUNC in 2011. During his 20 years in public radio, he was Morning Edition Host at WFDD and WUNC’s Greensboro Bureau Chief and later, the Capitol Bureau Chief. Jeff has covered state and federal politics, produced the radio documentary “Right Turn,” launched a podcast, and was named North Carolina Radio Reporter of the Year four times.
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