UNION COUNTY — The population growth Union County has experienced in recent years due to economic development is serving as a catalyst for the county’s application for a grant to study the feasibility of a local public transit system.
The South Carolina Department of Transportation’s Section 5311 Rural Transportation Program provides funding to rural communities for transit system operations. Before they can be approved for funding for their proposed public transit systems, however, the SCDOT requires communities to conduct and submit a feasibility study of the project.
Union County applied for a Section 5311 Rural Transportation grant for planning and technical assistance for fiscal 2012-2013, but the funding was not approved by the SCDOT.
On Tuesday, Union County Council voted unanimously to approve a resolution supporting a Transit Feasibility Study and agreeing to allocate $4,375 as a local match for the $39,375 in federal ($35,000) and state ($4,375) funds included in the grant the county is applying for.
The resolution states that the “Transit Feasibility Study” will “determine the vitality of public transit in the county emphasizing jobs and jobs related training transportation and rural public transit opportunities.”
Economic development and its impact on Union County is emphasized by the resolution and an accompanying report on the scope of the study compiled for the county by the Catawba Regional Council of Governments. Both point out that economic development has helped spur growth in the county’s population at the beginning of this decade.
The report states that “while Union County has experienced a decline in population in recent years, it should be noted between 2010-2011, the population increased by 5.9 percent from 27,084 in 2010 to 28,679 in 2011. This is due largely to economic development events that occurred in the county and the region.”
Those “economic development events” have resulted in the decline in the county’s unemployment rate which the report states fell to 9.4 percent in November. The report points out this was the first time in years the county’s unemployment rate, which during the height of the economic downturn reached 21.3 percent, had fallen into single digits.
The report quotes Union County Development Board Executive Director Andrena Powell-Baker who attributed the reduction in the county’s unemployment rate to the creation of 730 new jobs in the county within the past five years and the creation of hundreds more within driving distance of Union.
(The county’s unemployment rate continued to decline in December, falling to 9.1 percent.)
The report states that “as Union County, the Union County Development Board and the surrounding jurisdictions continue to work on lowering unemployment rates, officials believe that public transit is needed for workforce related transit options for their citizens. These demands are expected to continue and the county feels that it is time to examine the viability of establishing an effective and efficient transit service and associated programs to better enable their citizens to access jobs and training opportunities.”
The report also points out that while there are “a number of human service agencies” that provide transportation to their clients in Union County, these services are “oriented toward select demographic groups for access to specific programs and services such as aging and medical and adequately meet human service needs within the county. The proposed system would be designed to meet commuter market needs for travel between Union County and employment centers and job training opportunities. The system could also be expanded to augment existing human service needs.”
The report also refers to the 2006 “City of Union Public Transit Service Survey” in which “respondents indicated that a lack of public transit was a major concern and also indicated a willingness to use public transit if available.”
Supervisor Tommy Sinclair said that there is a need for public transit in Union County, pointing out that the availability of public transit systems has benefited other counties.
“I absolutely have seen surrounding counties improve with public transit,” Sinclair said. “The need is here.”
The results of the proposed feasibility study “will be used to make decisions on how to proceed with public transit as the study will show need and benefit, likely users, analysis of possible alternatives and a recommendation on the best alternative for Union County’s public transit needs.”
The report states that the study process will get under way once Catawba receives a “notice to proceed” from the SCDOT and will take six to eight months to complete.
Charles Warner can be reached at 864-427-1234, Ext. 14.