By DOTTY NIST
Within six months, county-owned buses are expected to be in operation to transport county employees and other workers between the Walton County Courthouse, the county offices in Freeport, and the South Walton Annex.
At the request of Mac Carpenter, county planning and development services director, the county commission recently approved a resolution accepting a $849,497 state Department of Transportation (DOT) grant providing for the purchase of four service transit buses and for initial operating expenses for the transit program. No matching funds are being required from Walton County in connection with the grant funding.
The approval took place at the May 28 Walton County Board of County Commissioners meeting at the Walton County Courthouse.
In 2016, the BCC had voted to apply for the grant for purposes of addressing the issue of congestion and parking shortages associated with workers living north of the bay who commute to jobs in south Walton County. The program is also aimed at reducing unemployment among north county residents who are unable to find jobs due to lack of transportation.
The route for the buses will be fixed and primarily along U.S. 331.
According to a memo provided to the BCC by Carpenter on May 28: “Walton County employees will be the primary target of the U.S. 331 service. Walton County surveyed some of its employees in July of 2015 and of the 232 responses that were received about 80, or 34%, could be interpreted to have some interest in using the service.”
The memo also identified Seaside employees as a “secondary target” for the program, since these employees park at South Walton High School during the busy season and are transported to Seaside via shuttle bus from the high school by Seaside, Inc.
At the May 28 meeting, Carpenter said that the county would like to expand the transit service over time in order to make it available to the general public, but that to do so it might be necessary to acquire additional buses.
Plans are for the county to purchase four buses with the grant funding, each with seating for 28 people, with one of the buses to serve as a spare. Each bus is expected to cost $155,000.
There is a three-year plan for roll out the transit service, with the goal of providing service 365 days of the year beginning in the third year. Envisioned in year one are 85 days of service, with adjustment possible subject to demand. For year two, 216 days of service are envisioned, beginning the last Monday in February (the start of Spring Break) and continuing through the Friday after New Year’s Day.
According to the memo, the first buses are to leave the courthouse at 5 a.m., with a 16-hour span of service anticipated during the period that the transit program is being provided. Frequency of buses is expected to range from 30 to 60 minutes between buses depending on time of day and demand. Initial plans are for the bus service to be free of charge to riders for the first three years.
Carpenter told the commissioners that he would estimate that it would take 90 days to obtain the buses—and that operation of the program would be expected to begin 90 days after that. He also said that the planning department would bring forward a request for qualifications to be advertised to seek an operator for the bus transit program.