Providing accessible public transportation and door-to-door paratransit services in rural areas has always been difficult. However, the confluence of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent nationwide shortage of commercial vehicle drivers has made the first couple years of Bryan Hinkle’s position particularly complicated.
He was appointed the Athens County mobility manager for nonprofit service provider Hocking Athens Perry Community Action—which operates Athens Public Transit and GoBus—in December 2021. He spent much of the first year working to address both cratering ridership levels and retiring commercial drivers license-holding bus drivers.
The shift of many CDL-holding drivers, especially newer ones, from public transportation systems to better-paying private sector jobs (which have also faced their own funding and staffing crisis in recent years) has severely hampered many transportation agencies’ efforts to bounce back from COVID-related drops in ridership. This has been especially true in rural areas, which have lower ridership numbers in general and, in many cases, longer routes to serve.
Hinkle, who said he has “always worked in some type of service field,” was previously a student support staffer at Hocking College. Now that he’s been able to get more of a handle on his role — “they say it takes two years in this position, because there’s so many moving parts to it” — he said his focus this next year will be increasing attention to APT from both potential riders and funding sources. Additionally, he will work to implement goals and meet “unmet needs” identified in the 2022-2026 Athens County Coordinated Transportation Plan, released in January 2022.
Goals in the plan include expanding APT bus routes and service hours, increasing capacity of the Athens On-Demand Transit (AODT) door-to-door paratransit service, decreasing or eliminating fares for low-income residents, expanding bike infrastructure, enhancing transportation options for leaving the county, addressing environmental concerns, improving educational efforts about APT services, implementing the Athens County Active Transportation Plan, and coordinating efforts and services with other local agencies.
The Independent’s interview with Bryan Hinkle has been edited for length and clarity.
What do the next couple of years look like for you, in terms of what you need to do to pursue each goal identified in the transportation plan?
Where we were at pre-COVID, ridership-wise — it’s almost like COVID changed the game with how people view public transportation. One of the biggest things in my position is to reeducate people about the importance of public transportation from not only an efficiency standpoint, but from an environmental standpoint. Our ridership is probably 50% of what it was pre-COVID. It’s climbing, but we’re still seeing that not as many riders are coming back.
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Transportation-wise, we need to look at some creative funding sources. Maybe more local partnerships in that regard, too — our biggest struggle we face is [service during] our nights and weekends. There’s not a way to do that. One of my roles for 2023 is to really look at what all is available, and [whether] there’s a way that we can utilize partnerships between transportation agencies to close some of the gaps, and really looking at how do we find funding to look at that? Because it really comes down to money.
What people don’t realize with, like, an ODOT grant is that 50% of the money has to come from local resources. If you get a grant for $1 million, you’re gonna have to find $1 million in local money to match that. That’s one of the struggles in rural Ohio, rural counties, rural America that we face with transportation, [in addition to] the distance that needs to be traveled: our communities are spread out.
What local funding sources are you hoping will step up?
One of the discussions we’ve had is with Rocky Community Improvement Fund, [which] we’re going to pursue this spring so that we can have some local funds available to start to reduce some of [those issues]. Sisters Health [Foundation] out of West Virginia, they provide a lot of grant funding as well. We have some wonderful partnerships with the City of Athens, which provides local funds currently, and [we are] so thankful for that. We need all those agencies to continue to support us.
[Bus] ridership is down, but it feels like demand is up for those on-demand services. People would much rather ride in a vehicle by themselves than to hop on a bus and be piled in with 15, 20 other people. From a cost standpoint, running door-to-door is not as cost-efficient as running a public transit bus.
I’ve been in this job for a year as the mobility coordinator, and really, my job is to promote and advocate for public transportation. I’ve just now realized what I’m doing in my job, and now I feel like I’m at a point where in 2023, we can really get out there and advocate and say, here’s where we’re at. In the transportation plan, I know the goals, but really where I focus is those unmet needs. How do we get folks to work?
Having public transportation is known to have an economic advantage. In tourism, another area to think about is the Baileys Trail up in Chauncey. We have a bus route that runs through there. How do we promote these bus routes better?
Partnering with the [Athens City-County] Health Department and [Athens] Creating Health Communities [Coalition], we’re going to be working on an educational campaign for 2023 around public transportation. Did you know that you can go from Athens to Cleveland? Did you know that you can go from Athens to the [Columbus International] Airport?
It’s finding ways to educate [about] what we have, because we’re always going to be chasing money. No matter what you do, there’s always more you can do. But getting back to those basics of really assessing our resources here and finding ways to educate and promote on a grassroots level — that’s kind of what we’ve come back to with this.
My job is to go out and make sure our riders are being heard. The three main categories of people that I work [with] through my grant are people with developmental disabilities, the elderly and the disadvantaged. Well, that’s a lot of our area here in southeast Ohio.
I don’t want to say it’s a foregone conclusion, but can you ever expect the Ohio Department of Transportation to provide more money for public transportation than it does for highway expansion?
You know, we are always communicating with ODOT. There’s a very good relationship between the providers and the communication flows back and forth in that. In my limited experience, if there has been a need, ODOT has been willing to step up. If an agency maybe has run low on funds, they have funds available to help with that.
Obviously, the Baileys Trail System has been bringing in a lot of money to the area, including a new bus shelter in Chauncey. At the same time, in terms of transportation, it’s not necessarily expanding a lot of things outside of the immediate area yet. Has it been more difficult to have a conversation around, for example, expanding the Hockhocking Adena Bikeway to Glouster, as opposed to Chauncey? [Ed. note: Expanding the bikeway to Glouster was a community suggestion included in the 2022-2026 Coordinated Transportation Plan, but otherwise has not received much attention from officials. Expanding the bikeway to Chauncey has been a project of the village, county and ODOT since at least 2017.]
I haven’t had a lot of experience in that yet. I do have a goal of expanding into the north of Glouster. I feel like we need more access. I don’t know in that regard how those projects are awarded or decided, but I do know that we need to look at the county as a whole.
There have been many occasions over the past few months where APT routes were canceled. How much of your current role with HAPCAP is getting staffing back to a good level, versus being able to talk about expanding hours or routes?
[The lack of CDL-licensed drivers] — and I believe they need a couple of years experience as well, to be hired by Athens Public Transit — has really impacted the ability to reach capacity, to expand. That’s the big thing. One of the things, though, that has been interesting is as we look at the type of vehicles that we are able to procure, we may want to look at non-CDL vehicles. They’d be a little smaller, and maybe [we’d] only have a few CDL [vehicles] that run through the busy lines through the city of Athens.
If you’re having trouble hiring and you raise the wage and you still can’t get [drivers], what options do you have? To look at that and say, ‘Well, if we’re able to need fewer CDL drivers and we can hire more non-CDL,’ then I think that’s definitely a discussion that’s on the table as we move forward.
Transportation touches every part of our life. A big portion of our people in Athens, a lot of them are students [and] don’t have a car. So how are they getting where they need to go? Every little active transportation piece — every sidewalk that gets replaced — I look at those as victories. Instead of saying, ‘Well, we should have done that site,’ it’s, you know, we’ll get there.
You’ve got to keep being willing to have the discussions. What does public transportation look like for us? How do we utilize transportation to get these folks where they need to go with an unmet need?
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