Originally created 05/18/98

Bus services may merge



NEW ELLENTON -- A bus service that began in New Ellenton in August may be headed in new directions by summer's end.

New Ellenton passengers would be stepping aboard the Best Friend Express instead. If that happens, the New Ellenton Connection would be freed up to head for new destinations, possibly including Monetta.

It's not clear if the name New Ellenton Connection would remain.

Aiken County Transit Manager Joe Ewing said he plans to propose bus route changes for Best Friend that will increase bus service and reduce travel time for passengers throughout the county. The new routes would include stops in New Ellenton that are now being made by the New Ellenton Connection.

Route changes and cutting travel time on all routes, which now can take more than two hours from start to finish, are seen as a way to encourage higher ridership. The overall number of riders with Best Friend is up, Mr. Ewing said.

LifeCare contracts with Aiken County to operate Best Friend, the county's public bus service. It also operates Dial-A-Ride and through a rural transportation grant, the New Ellenton Connection.

The New Ellenton bus service began Aug. 18.

On a hot Friday afternoon, the New Ellenton Connection collected one passenger on Main Street before winding through the Greendale community and heading toward Aiken. Another passenger boarded in front of Kmart in Aiken.

Bus driver Beverly Upson said she doesn't have a lot of passengers on the regular route in New Ellenton, but "I do a lot of New Ellenton routes and pick up elderly passengers who've called ahead."

Those who do ride seem to enjoy the bus service, she said.

Public Works Commissioner Gene Crawford was among those pushing to get the rural transportation grant for the bus service. He remembers New Ellenton residents who told him they had to pay $10 or more privately to get a ride into Aiken.

"It's doing fairly good. We need some more customers," Mr. Crawford said. One idea he's thinking about is having bus route schedules printed on the back of the town's water bills. He'd also like to see more help from churches in getting the word out that the service is available, and bus drivers allowed to make extra stops on the route when riders call in advance to LifeCare.

"It's awful hard to get that across to the clientele that needs to use the system," he said.

The planned changes for Best Friend and New Ellenton Connection have been discussed with George Alexander, executive director of LifeCare Connections, formerly Council on Aging.

The 16-passenger, handicapped-accessible New Ellenton Connection bus stops are in front of Town Hall, the public works commission, and Todd's Hot Spot, all on Main Street in New Ellenton. But the route winds through the Greendale community and also includes stops on Dry Branch and Whiskey roads.

Critics sometimes complain there are too few passengers to justify operating bus routes in the county. But Mr. Ewing said Aiken County shouldn't be compared to metropolitan bus-service areas.

"It's not like in Augusta where they can drive up and down streets, picking up people right and left," he said.

Aiken County contributed $51,000 for the current fiscal year for bus services. In the coming fiscal year, 1998-1999, the transit authority is asking for $60,000. The city of Aiken contributes about $15,000 annually.

Although the city of North Augusta receives bus service, city officials have never contributed money to operation of the buses, largely due to complaints about low ridership.

The contract between LifeCare and Aiken County is due for renewal July 1.

The idea is to combine bus services offered by the New Ellenton Connection and Best Friend, Mr. Ewing said. Changes to the contract probably won't happen until after the new contract goes into effect, however.

A number of steps have to take place, including the approval of the Aiken County Council and LifeCare, Mr. Ewing said.

Coordination and consolidation of bus services are the goal of state transportation officials who are encouraging area and regional agencies to work together in providing their services.

With a rural transportation grant, LifeCare on Aug. 18 launched the first regular bus service linking New Ellenton and Aiken. The final destination and turnaround point is LifeCare's headquarters on Morgan Street.

Under the current setup, once the New Ellenton Connection picks up passengers, the bus is restricted in making additional stops for extra riders along South Carolina Highway 19 on its way toward Aiken. It would be illegal, Mr. Ewing said, because the county has jurisdiction over "urban routes," and New Ellenton Connection is funded as a rural route.

But with Best Friend Express extending its routes to New Ellenton, the bus would have more flexibility in making stops and picking up extra riders, he said.