The Douglas County Transportation District board has spent its first seven months of existence scrambling to pull together the system that will soon take charge of transit services in Douglas County.
In practical terms, that means it must be ready to oversee the UTrans bus service and all the Dial-a-Ride programs around the county, as well as collect and distribute the state and federal grant monies that pay for those services by July 1. Those services had historically been provided by the Douglas County government, which still holds the money and the contracts until the end of the fiscal year June 30.
The Douglas County Transportation District, despite its name, is not a county department but a separate governmental body run by a seven-member elected board. The chairman of that board, Mike Baker, said the transition hasn’t been easy.
Right now, the district has no office, no employees and no money.
Nevertheless, Baker is optimistic that the transition will take place, and that it will proceed smoothly enough that the people who use the services won’t see it disrupted.
“It has been very frustrating for myself and for the board of directors of the district, but we’re working with it. Our goal is we are going to succeed despite the obstacles that have been put in front of us. Transit service will continue July 1. Come hell or high water, we’re going to do it,” Baker said.
Call it growing pains, or, as United Community Action Network Director Mike Fieldman suggested, birthing pains. Either way, starting up a transportation district is not an easy task.
“They’re trying to start up a brand new governmental entity from scratch is basically what we’re looking at,” Fieldman said.
Transportation district board members have expressed frustration with the way the county government has handled the transition. John Parker, one of the more outspoken board members, said he believes the county’s been throwing obstacles in the district’s path.
“It just seems like if there was an actual desire for this to be a speedy and smooth transfer there wouldn’t be so many roadblocks being put up,” Parker said.
Early on the county had contracted with an outside attorney to help the district organize, but that aid was withdrawn and several board members said they never saw anything produced.
Then, at the district board’s most recent meeting, the county offered an intergovernmental agreement that would transfer $10,000 from the county to the district for startup costs like attorney fees and insurance.
But the agreement said the district would have to submit invoices, with the county deciding whether to approve reimbursement. That didn’t go over well with the transportation board.
Board members felt they were stuck with a chicken-and-egg problem. They couldn’t afford an attorney without the intergovernmental agreement, but without an attorney to look it over they couldn’t be sure they ought to sign the agreement.
Parker strongly opposed the agreement, arguing it set up the possibility the district could agree to pay for a service, submit an invoice to the county, and have the county reject it.
“They’re treating us as if we’re children seeking an allowance, and then they want to accompany us to the candy store to make sure we’re buying the right candy,” Parker said.
Keith Cubic, retired Douglas County planning director, has contracted to represent the county government through the transition. He said it’s not as simple as some of the transit board members seem to think.
“There was a perception that the district was created and the county could just take a chunk of money and give it to them and then they would manage that. But we can’t do that,” he said.
That’s because the county is responsible for the way the funds are used through June 30, Cubic said, and even after that it will take time to close the books. It’s likely not all the money still in the county’s hands will be transferred to the district until September, he said.
Cubic said that having the special district take over will be a better way to provide transit services and to oversee program growth. He said he’s optimistic the details will be worked out in time.
“It’s just a clumsy process and it has a lot of moving parts. But I think we’ll be there. The bottom line is we have to be there. We have to. And you do want it to be as seamless as possible,” he said.
The United Community Action Network, which currently contracts to provide the UTrans bus service, has reached out to help where it can. Director Mike Fieldman said UCAN will provide administrative services and operational services for the district’s first two years, and consolidate the dispatch services for the Dial-a-Ride into the dispatch service UCAN runs for its paratransit program. The paratransit offers door-to-door transit for the disabled.
Dial-a-Ride dispatchers have been temporary employees for years, and will receive benefits and higher pay, while customers will have a streamlined service.
Fieldman said UCAN knows the importance of transit service to the low-income county residents it helps. Without the service, many people, especially seniors, can’t get to the grocery store or the doctor’s office.
“When we do our needs assessment with our clientele, transportation is always one of the top needs that our clientele have. Especially in rural communities like ours, transportation is just a real challenge,” he said.
Cheryl Cheas, transit manager for the United Community Action Network and recently named the transportation district’s general manager, said UTrans bus ridership varies from 100,000 to 160,000 per year. Some of its riders are only able to remain independent because of the service, she said.
Baker anticipates the transportation district will not just continue the service, but grow it. He hopes to obtain grant money to increase bus routes. In the future, buses could stop every half hour rather than every hour at many stops, visit new places such as the YMCA, the movie theater and the social security office, and make more connections with transit services to neighboring counties. The district may build a transit hub, too.
While the transition has been frustrating, Baker said he doesn’t plan to spend time looking backward at how things might have gone.
“We’re moving forward and we’re going to make a better transportation system, and in the end, that’s really what it’s all about,” he said.