Mayor Allen Joines says that he is still in talks with Forsyth Medical Center and Wake Forest Baptist Health about the possibility of the two hospitals helping to underwrite the cost of operating limited Winston-Salem Transit Authority routes on Sundays.
The idea of Sunday service came up earlier this year as the City Council pondered a proposed $0.30 hike for city bus fare, which currently is $1. The idea was floated during budget talks as one of the ways for the city to make ends meet.
“There was a lot of debate during the budget preparation,” explained City Council member Dan Besse, a member of the city’s Public Works Committee and a strong proponent of Sunday service. “The compromise when the budget was adopted was that we wouldn’t raise the rates but we would wait on the Sunday service addition.”
Winston-Salem is the only major North Carolina city that offers no bus service at all on Sunday. Joines envisions a plan that would offer a few Sunday routes centered around the downtown area and the two hospitals.
“Nothing has been decided yet, but we are having that conversation,” Joines said. “They are two of the largest employers in the city and our research shows that a good number of the riders are medical center employees.”
Because Baptist and Forsyth are nonprofits, neither pays property taxes, and because so many of their clients and employees utilize public transportation, the medical centers could benefit significantly from the services being offered seven days a week, city leaders say.
Bus riders are excited about the possibility of Sunday service. Bus rider Tay Gibson, 20, thinks Sunday service is a good idea, even though he doesn’t normally use WSTA on weekends.
“I feel like it would be more convenient for people that have things to do,” remarked Gibson, who is soon slated to start studying at Forsyth Technical Community College. “Not for me personally, because my mother has a car and I have a way around, but for other people that don’t have a way to get around.”
As a native of Brooklyn, N.Y.. Sharon Jones is accustomed to public transportation services on Sunday. Jones, who works in the cafeteria at Wake Forest University, said she sometimes has to work on Sundays and finding a ride to and from her job can be a challenge. The mother of two said she would also relish being able to utilize the bus to make a much needed getaway on the Sundays when she doesn’t have anywhere she has to be. While riding home from work on Monday afternoon, Jones said she and several other patrons were discussing the merits of Sunday service.
“About six or seven of us were talking about it on the bus,” she related. “We were just talking about how they should have Sunday service to go to church or to go back and forth to work. Especially when they have events downtown people would love, but who wants to be walking?”
Jones said she was pleased to hear that the prospect of Sunday service was still on the table, but she wasn’t holding her breath.
“We’ve done heard it so many times before,” she declared. “I’m just praying and waiting to see what happens.”
Joines believes that implementing Sunday service could help pave the way for the city’s much-talked about Urban Circulator project. Still in its preliminary stages, the project would use an enhanced bus system with physical and technological upgrades or a modern streetcar in concentrated areas of the city.
The project took form after a study was conducted in 2006, said City-County Planning Director Paul Norby. The city is seeking public input on the idea on its web site, http://www.ci.winston-salem.nc.us. Norby said that if city leaders decided to pursue the project, it would not come to fruition for another five to seven years.
If implemented, the Urban Circulator would work in concert with the existing bus system, not replace it, and could inspire other projects within the city, he explained.
“It’s meant to do two things: it’s meant to spur economic development and it’s also meant to move people in between destinations, but it certainly won’t be the only answer in terms of urban transportation,” Norby said.
While the streetcars may be in the city’s future, for now, city buses remain the only viable public transportation option, and Besse says it’s high time they ran on a full-week schedule. He added that he hopes to have Sunday service in place in the first half of 2013.
“I’m going to press for a start of actual Sunday service early next year, sometime before spring. We’re either going to see that or somebody’s at least going to have to explain to me why it can’t be done,” he said. “It’s a good time to raise that question. The statistics are very clear: public transportation is on the rise and has been for awhile.”