Long before sunrise, Audrey Stephens is standing in the parking lot of a Chinese restaurant in Walterboro — her bus stop.
As she waits, Stephens, 55, chats with three or four other passengers about the most recent episode of Criminal Minds. They speculate about whether any big hurricanes will hit South Carolina this year.
They wait patiently for one of the only vehicles on the road at 5 a.m. in Walterboro: a Palmetto Breeze bus.
Stephens has been standing at a bus stop each weekday morning for 30 years, waiting for her ride to work on the south end of Hilton Head Island. She leaves home at 5 a.m. to get to work by 7:30 a.m., and spends more than four hours a day on a bus.
She has come to enjoy it.
“Riding that bus is just like family because we see each other every day. If someone’s not there, we call them (in the morning) and say ‘What happened? We’re waiting for you,’” she said. “Because of them, not one time I’ve missed the bus. Never.”
At the end of her workday, Stephens sits with Ernestine Fryer at the stop outside the Hilton Head McDonald’s for nearly an hour. They trade stories and eat ramen noodle soup and chicken wings from Callahan’s before the bus arrives at 5 p.m. to take them home.
Once they get on the bus, “everybody’s chilling.” They watch movies. Some catch up on sleep or read books during the 75-mile journey on Route 320.
Now, their only way to get to and from work is in jeopardy.
‘HELP HELP HELP’
When Stephens boarded the bus one morning in mid-June, her driver said the Colleton County Council was considering not funding the route anymore. Palmetto Breeze, the regional transit authority for the Lowcountry, lost a state grant for the commuter bus route this year, authority executive director Mary Lou Franzoni wrote to Colleton County finance director John Carpenter.
The Colleton County Council decided to eliminate one of two routes: the local Walterboro route that transports passengers from nearby apartments to businesses like Walmart, or the commuter line that takes people to Beaufort County.
Later in June, the council chose to keep the more expensive route, the $47,088 local line, and denied Palmetto Breeze’s $27,632 request to continue running Route 320 to Hilton Head.
The change went into effect July 1 — just 15 days after Stephens first heard about it.
Stephens drafted a petition. At the bottom, she wrote in colorful pen: HELP, HELP, HELP THE PEOPLE IN COLLETON COUNTY! Underneath, in the corner, she scribbled in pen: “Psalm 20.” The Bible chapter reads in part:
“May the Lord answer you when you are in distress...
May he send you help from the sanctuary...
May he remember all your sacrifices
and accept your burnt offerings...
May the Lord grant all your requests.”
Her paper petition garnered 84 signatures.
Route 320 is still running because of emergency funding from Palmetto Breeze, but it’s guaranteed only until Labor Day.
After 30 years of catching the bus like clockwork, passengers alternate between despair and resolve.
“I want someone to care,” Stephens said.
The Colleton council approved the cut without consternation because, according to one council member, “no one that was involved had ever come before council to express why they thought it was important.”
Stephens jumped at the challenge.
She took the day off work so she could be at the July 30 Colleton County Council meeting with a dozen other riders and plead with council members. She called every state representative she could think of, and the NAACP, just to be safe.
If she’d taken the bus to her job as a housekeeping technician at The Seabrook of Hilton Head that day, she wouldn’t have been home until about 7 p.m. — an hour after the council meeting started.
After hearing the damage canceling the bus route would inflict, the council agreed to reconsider the matter Sept. 10 — after the emergency funding will have run out.
How much does the bus cost riders?
The bus from Colleton County seats 50 people — Stephens and Fryer said it’s nearly full everyday. It runs seven days a week, but the ridership varies, Stephens said, because many hospitality workers have Wednesday and Thursday off.
There are 23 stops between Ruffin and Hilton Head, in places like the Chinese restaurant parking lot, a used car lot and the post office. Once it arrives on Hilton Head, the bus makes nine stops, from the Cypress retirement community on the north end to the south end McDonald’s.
A single trip on Route 320 costs $4; a monthly pass is $158.40, which covers 44 trips, according to the Palmetto Breeze website.
Although it’s a big expense, many of the riders don’t own cars, county councilman Art Williams told The Island Packet. If they did, Stephens said they’d likely pay more than the bus fare driving 75 miles each way to work.
That’s why it’s so important to the riders, mostly African Americans from rural counties. Without the bus, they’d have no way to get to the higher-paying jobs available on Hilton Head.
“How would I get to work?” Stephens asked.
“We’d have to meet the bus somewhere else,” Fryer said. They’d have to find a ride to one of the three other counties with commuter buses to Hilton Head: Allendale, Hampton and Jasper.
A changing economy in Walterboro and Colleton County
Stephens and Fryer are among 4,400 people commuting 50 miles or more each way to work on Hilton Head Island, according to an April workforce housing report by Lisa Sturtevant and Associates.
Stephens is from Brooklyn, New York, and moved to Walterboro after she got married in the 1980s.
Walterboro “had nothing at that time. There was no money here,” she said. “Living wasn’t too good until we heard about Hilton Head.”
She applied for a job on Hilton Head and was hired the same day. Stephens worked for the Sea Pines Resort for 13 years and then transferred to the Seabrook retirement resort.
Williams, the county council member, said there’s a new, booming retail scene, and employers can’t find enough workers to stay open all day. Walterboro is home to retail stores such as Belk, Sears and Walmart.
Stephens and Fryer said they’d never work there.
“For $7.25?” Stephens asked, referring to the minimum wage. “Ain’t nobody working for that.”
“And you can’t get all 40 hours,” Fryer added, explaining that employers sometimes keep employees below full-time status to avoid paying benefits. “It’d be starting all over for us,” she said. “What options do we have?”
Bill Harkins, a town council member on Hilton Head, said shifting the financial burden of the route to Hilton Head taxpayers doesn’t make sense when the bus riders pay taxes in Colleton and spend most of their money there.
“Workers may be able to make more here than Colleton ... and they spend most of their money at home,” he told the Hilton Head intergovernmental committee Aug. 5.
“The money is here,” she said while sitting at the Hilton Head bus stop. “But all that money goes right back to Walterboro.”
‘The bus must run’
When she gets back to Walterboro each evening, Stephens said she rarely has time to do anything but get ready for work the next day. But she said she does it for her kids, now ages 33 and 29.
“It’s worth taking the bus at 5 o’clock in the morning and getting home at 5 minutes to 7 p.m. everyday,” she said. “It’s paid for their lives.”
When Stephens started riding the bus, she had two babies. Riding to Hilton Head each day has allowed her to put her son through college.
Now, the 55-year-old is nearing retirement. Losing the bus, she said, would zap her savings and take her away from the “family” she’s looked forward to seeing on the bus for the past 30 years.
“I’ll lose everything,” she said, shaking her head. “I’ll try to get there, but all of us will be losing everything.
“The bus must run.”