As one of the drivers for the western route on the Calhoun County fixed-route bus system provided by the East Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission, Stinson is on a first-name basis with just about everyone she picks up in town, trading jokes and asking about the lives of her customers.
“I’ve learned all the names of the regular folks,” Stinson said. “I’ve tried to get familiar with everyone.”
But the familiarity on Stinson’s bus route actually belies the fact that the bus system in Calhoun County is growing, if not in actual riders, certainly in the quantity of trips those familiar faces are taking.
Since 2005, ridership on county buses has gone up more than 72 percent, according to East Alabama. In the fiscal year 2011-12 which ended in September, 117,740 fares were counted, up from 105,402 in the previous year. And October’s monthly numbers of 11,074 showed an increase of nearly 2,000 riders from September.
“I don’t know if there’s one singular reason why,” said Shane Christian, administrator of public transportation at the Planning and Development Commission, on the increase of people using the bus. “I think it’s just been able to meet the needs of our residents and serve them.”
The current version of the bus system began in 1988 as one route that traveled the length of Noble Street, Christian said. But it has expanded greatly in recent years, now offering four hour-long routes that start and end at the Amtrak station on Fourth Street in Anniston and serve Oxford and Weaver as well.
“I think certainly the economy has something to do with it,” Christian said, adding that studies on public transportation and the increase in ridership have been limited for the commission.
But according to some of the bus drivers, Christian is right about there not being a single reason people use the bus. Stinson said she’s been a driver for a little more than a year but has noticed a lot of new regular passengers during the last three months. She said the destinations of her passengers vary greatly. A lot of passengers use the early-morning routes to get to the Anniston Soup Bowl, as well as to keep doctor’s appointments and visit the hospitals. The Social Security Office, the library, Cheaha Career Center, and the Ayers campus of Gadsden State Community College are also popular stops, she said.
Stinson said for the most part, people use it just to get around.
“I use it every week to get the doctor’s office or to get groceries,” said Evelynn Crawford of Anniston, who rode Stinson’s bus Monday morning to go shopping in Oxford. “It’s just convenient. It gets you to where you need to go.”
Christian said it’s riders seeking that convenience, along with the reliability and the cost to ride — $1 for most riders with discounts for seniors, children, the disabled and members of the military — make up the bulk of residents who regularly use the bus.
But for others, bus transportation is a necessity.
Arthur Freeman, a veteran, said the bus is his main means of transportation to physical therapy appointments in town as well as to do simple chores like taking mail to the post office.
“It would be quite difficult,” Freeman said, if he had to get around without the bus.
And for some, it would be impossible.
“It’s my lifeline,” said Lee Sharp, an Anniston man who said he’s used the bus six days a week for the last five months to get to his job at O’Charley’s restaurant in Oxford. “My car broke down so this is all I got. I like to call it my personal coach.”
Because of its ridership expansion, Christian said there have been some talks about route extensions, or possibly more lines, but the commission is also wary of over-extending itself. Despite increasing fares from riders, most of the budget for the system — $1,170,155 in the 2011-12 fiscal year — comes through federal grants as well as money budgeted to transportation from the cities of Weaver, Oxford and Anniston.
“Most of the people I talk to say they’d like to see extended hours, and even Sunday hours,” Christian said. “And that’s something we’ll look at it when we go over our budgets.”
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.