Approval of RTS routes sparks renewed city criticism of county


Published: Friday, November 2, 2012 at 3:42 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 2, 2012 at 3:42 p.m.

The Gainesville City Commission's approval Thursday of bus route changes for the spring sparked a renewed round of criticism of the county.

Over the past several months, city commissioners have frequently criticized the Alachua County Commission for its handling of a sales tax referendum that heads to voters on Tuesday. That criticism has included a formal resolution encouraging city voters to vote against it because the city, with roughly half the population of Alachua County, would get about one-quarter of the revenues.

The -cent tax would fund road repair projects after a majority of the County Commission first voted to separate, and then to eliminate, a -cent sales tax for the city's bus system on the premise Gainesville was not far enough along in its planning for a bus rapid transit system included on the project list.

The city's criticism resurfaced Thursday evening along with some sharp words about the county's decision to cut funding by $120,000 for the portion of east-side bus routes in unincorporated Alachua County.

Mayor Craig Lowe said the message from the County Commission was: "We don't care about routes on the east side."

"That is the decision they made, to abandon routes on the east side," Lowe said.

The City Commission voted unanimously to dip into Regional Transit System reserves for two years to make up for the funding cuts from the county. Lowe said that showed the city was doing more for the transportation needs of residents in the unincorporated areas than county government. He said that was one reason to vote against the road sales tax.

After the funding cuts to RTS, the county will put approximately $404,200 toward bus service in the unincorporated area, including east-side routes. Separately, the county will pay the city $547,000 specifically for Route 75, which runs in the unincorporated area west of Gainesville.

On Friday, interim County Manager Rick Drummond said a deficit in the county's gas tax fund, which funds its share of the bus service, led to the reductions. Drummond and County Commissioner Lee Pinkoson said passenger numbers on some unincorporated routes dictated where cuts were targeted.

One example was Route 2, which RTS staff initially recommended eliminating because of the reduction in the county's funding. After public concerns and opposition, the city kept that route.

Last year, that route averaged about 8,400 passengers a month. But Drummond and Pinkoson said the average was 24 passengers for the stretch in unincorporated areas.

"It seemed like for the county, in that instance, the (funding) formula did not match the (number) of people riding in that area," Pinkoson said.

Thursday's meeting also included a verbal disagreement between City Commissioners Todd Chase and Thomas Hawkins. Chase pointed to three residents in the audience who came to express concerns about bus service cuts. He said they were victims of politics and the "charade" that was the debate of the sales tax.

Chase said he felt the county would have been willing to include enhancement of existing bus routes on the ballot but that the City Commission was not willing to give up bus rapid transit.

He then made a motion to dip into RTS reserves to make up the funding cuts. It was Hawkins who seconded that motion before responding to Chase.

Hawkins said it was "absurd" to argue that routes and funding had been cut because the city sought to improve its system in the future through bus rapid transit.

"I find the suggestion to be bothersome," he said. "It's absurd."

The County Commission, Hawkins said, had "ideological policy motives" that led to the elimination of transit from the ballot.

Chase said both sides had some role in transit not making the ballot and that he did not care to continue with the debate about who was to blame.

Commissioner Randy Wells, meanwhile, grew impassioned when discussing the inability of the city and county to hammer out an agreement on a transit tax.

"I am pissed off that we didn't resolve this between us and the county," Wells said as he slammed the commissioners' desk with his fist.

He said the county never gave the city a legitimate reason for its decision.

On Friday, Pinkoson reiterated his reasoning. He did not feel the planning for bus rapid transit was far enough along to put it to the voters.

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