December 2, 2021

Revamping the transit system

Bob Ellis/staff photographer

Cortland Transit bus driver Kevin Sprague assists Grace Hedlund as she is lowered from a bus at the Cortland County Office Building. Hedlund said she is very thankful for the local buses with wheelchair accessibility or she would be stuck at home. Waiting to board is Renee Waddy, right.

For many residents, the county’s Cortland Transit bus system is more than just a form of public transportation. For some, it is the only affordable way to get around, and the only thing allowing them to maintain their independence.

There are still flaws in the system which need to be addressed, though, and a number of area officials say service can be improved to help more residents get to where they need to go.

Cortland resident Helen Hellum said last week that when she first moved to the area three years ago, one of her biggest problems was figuring out how the county’s Cortland Transit bus system ran. She said it was because there were few people around to ask.

For example, she said she went to take a bus on Columbus Day only to find out it wasn’t running that day and she had to readjust her schedule at the last minute.

“That blew me away. It’s like, how do you know about that,” she said. “There’s poor communication. It seems like there could be an empty room (in the County Office Building) … where they can have a customer service terminal.”

Hellum added the fact that county buses do not run on the weekends makes things difficult as taxi rides to where she works in Cortlandville cost much more than the $1.50 fare she pays to ride the bus.

Fran Pizzola, community education coordinator for Access to Independence, said last week that both weekend bus routes and allowing the buses to run later into the evening are things her organization are asking for.

While Access to Independence is always advocating on behalf of people with disabilities within the community, Pizzola reminded residents that access to safe and reliable transportation is something that benefits everyone.

“You never know when you’re going to jump into that disability category,” she said. “You can age into a disability, you can acquire a disability … or you can be born with one. So what helps us right now is going to help someone in the long run.”

Ann Hotchkin, mobility management coordinator for Seven Valleys Health Coalition, said last week that expanding services and providing more transportation options, are active pursuits and ongoing challenges.

Specifically, finding transportation for the uninsured is something the organization wants to address.

When buses are unavailable on weekends, evenings, or when people need to go long distances, some can pay hundreds of dollars for rides by taxi, she said.

When buses do run, availability and scheduling conflicts can make it nearly impossible for people to arrive at destinations or return home at a reasonable hour.

“We have a rural (bus) Route 5 that doesn’t operate that often; a couple in the morning, a couple in the afternoon,” she said. “That makes a big circle around (the county). You’ve got to leave in the morning and then wait all day to get a ride back home. It’s not always super convenient.”

Purchasing wheelchair-accessible vehicles is something she said she would like to see, but in addition to costs, there are issues like finding the people to drive them and getting them insured.

All this means for many residents, is that Cortland Transit is the most affordable or accessible option for them.
Cortland County Planning Department Director Dan Dineen also heads the county’s Transportation Advisory Committee, which oversees public transportation.

He said last week that in the 24 years the county’s transit system has been around, there have been improvements made, including rides to Cornell University, Tompkins Cortland Community College, and routes needed for consumers at the J.M. Murray center in Cortlandville.

As it is with most things, however, he said the barrier preventing that from happening is funding.

He explained most — more than 80 percent — of the total cost of providing public busing comes in the form of aid from the state Department of Transportation.

“(The bus company) receives funding based on the number of passengers taken and the miles driven,” he said. “Fares, the money people pay to ride the bus … pays a very small percentage; probably about 12 percent of the funding.”

Dineen noted the county tried running buses on weekends, but ended up scrapping it a few months later because few people used the service.

“When the routes were in play, it was unsure … if these were going to be temporary or permanent,” he said. “Because of the lack of ridership it was losing money, so the service was stopped.”

Dineen said Cortland County and neighboring counties are talking about coordination to expand services for residents, for example, coordinating buses to meet in one place at the same time to make it easier for residents to transfer.

For now though, Dineen said from the county’s perspective, the future of expanding services to residents hinges on more people using the existing transit system more often.

“People want to have services in place, but in order to keep it in place we’re going to need the ridership,” he said.