Proposal could save CATS

Published 12:03 am Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Commissioners heard a proposal Monday that could “save” the county’s public transportation system – a partnership with the Wiregrass Transit Authority (WAT).

In December, it was announced the Covington Area Transit System (CATS) had a $36,000 funding shortfall because of the loss of contracts. Commissioners said then, they’d like to find a way for the agency to continue to operate at its current levels.

Residents spoke out at a public meeting against raising fares, so Commissioner David Ellis, who serves as a county representative on the Southeast Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission, took the county’s problem to a recent board meeting. SEARP&DC is the parent agency for the area’s transit system.

“Nothing is set in stone, and nothing is a done deal,” said Chairman Lynn Sasser of the proposed agreement. “We’re looking at our options for a long-range solution to keep our system running. We don’t want people to get scared or panic, thinking that we’re stopping services. We’re not.

“We’ve got to look and see what can be done to maintain the program,” he said.

John Sorrell, WAT director, said the partnership, if agreed upon, would be the first of its kind in the agency’s history.

“Covington County needs CATS,” Sorrell said. “Based on (the commission’s) comments, you want to preserve your transit system. For that to happen, people need to realize this is not a social service delivery system. This is true rural public transportation.

“A project like this has never been done before, but we’re excited about what the future holds for us all,” he said.

While still in its preliminary stages, the proposal calls for the WAT, which serves the Dothan and Houston County areas, to partner with the county to run the CATS program from its Wiregrass location. Buses would still operate from and within Covington County, but to save costs, the program’s administrative and dispatching duties would be done through the WAT office.

Sorrell made no mention of local employee changes, only that the project becomes feasible once longtime CATS Director, Ruth Edson, retires.

He said the project would be a “challenge,” from the initial set up and transit costs, communications, insurance and personnel to determining how the agency’s funding would be impacted.

“If we do this, there’s no guarantee the state funding level will be the same,” he said. “Then, there’ll be 30 to 60 days of ‘interesting moments’ when we integrate the system, plus all the ALDOT issues.

“But we think it can be done,” he said. “We have the technical capacity to work with (the county), but you need to ask yourself, is it feasible, practical, affordable and sustainable? We think so.”

Since the presentation was not made during the commission’s meeting, no formal action was taken; however, commissioners agreed with Sorrell, and District 3 Commissioner Harold Elmore asked to see the project move forward.