Politics & Government

Bus that brings workers 75 miles to Hilton Head will run after letter from congressmen

Study says 16,000 workers come onto Hilton Head to work. Here’s why

A study commissioned by the Town of Hilton Head Island shows those earning $25,000 or less can't afford to live on Hilton Head.
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A study commissioned by the Town of Hilton Head Island shows those earning $25,000 or less can't afford to live on Hilton Head.

A bus that transports people 75 miles to work on Hilton Head Island will continue through next summer after the Colleton County Council reversed its decision to scrap the route.

The vote came Tuesday night after a nudge from U.S. Reps. Joe Cunningham, representing the 1st Congressional District, and James Clyburn, representing District 6. The two wrote the council last week supporting Palmetto Breeze Route 320.

“Many of these bus riders do not have vehicles of their own and may not be able to continue working in their current jobs if the service was terminated,” the congressmen wrote.

Bus riders on Route 320 — about 20 passengers on any given day — typically board the bus between 4:50 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. in Ruffin, Walterboro and Hendersonville. The route winds through Yemassee and Bluffton before arriving on Hilton Head Island at 7:30 a.m.

Riders pay $158.40 each month to take the bus — the most expensive route Palmetto Breeze offers.

In June, riders heard that Colleton leaders, wanting to cut Palmetto Breeze’s budget, decided not to pay the $27,000 annual costs for Route 320 after Labor Day. After a summer of uncertainty and a private donation from two employers on Hilton Head to keep the bus running, the council agreed to revisit the matter.

The council voted unanimously to fund the bus until June 30, 2020, an $11,513.33 expense which will come from the county’s general fund.

Katherine Kokal The Island Packet

Jobs in Colleton County?

One of the main arguments for cutting money for the route was to encourage workers to get jobs in Colleton County.

“It doesn’t really benefit us to transport our people out of the community for work,” County Council member Art Williams told The Island Packet in August. “It was hard for me to justify paying to have them transported out of the community to go to work, when I know several retail stores that have to literally close in the middle of the day because they don’t have any employees.”

In their letter, Cunningham and Clyburn countered that argument.

“Although there are reportedly a number of unfilled employment vacancies which exist in Colleton County, it is our understanding that these positions are primarily entry-level,” the letter read. “Even if current bus riders quit their jobs due to the end of this service and were able to quickly obtain new employment in Colleton County, their salary would likely be insufficient to maintain their current standard of living.”

Marilyn Fields, a 30-year rider on Route 320 who came to Tuesday’s meeting to support maintaining the bus route, peppered the council with questions about the jobs closer to home.

“Are the jobs you’re bringing full time? Will they give us PTO (paid time off)? Benefits? 40 hours a week?” she asked.

Katherine Kokal The Island Packet

Fields worked in Palmetto Dunes for 29 years before taking a job at the Marriott Barony Beach Club last year. She said she worries about her retirement savings and whether she would get paid the same at a retail job in Walterboro.

“Continue to keep that bus on the road,” she demanded of the council. “We need that bus.”

What’s next?

Riders and the congressmen said they hope not to have to address the problem again.

“We respectfully request you work toward a permanent solution for the Palmetto Breeze Route 320 so those affected can maintain their employment to support their families and community,” Cunningham and Clyburn wrote.

Katherine Kokal The Island Packet

But Council Chairman Joseph Flowers said the bus route will be guaranteed to run only until June 30.

“We can only fund one year at a time,” he said.

Asked whether the letter from Cunningham and Clyburn helped change the minds of the council, he said “in their letter they were asking us to consider this for this year. We’ll respond to their letter if they’re going to give us money for it.”

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Katherine Kokal moved to South Carolina in 2018 after graduating from the University of Missouri and loves everything about the Lowcountry that isn’t a Palmetto Bug. She has won South Carolina Press Association awards for in-depth and government beat reporting. On the weekends, you can find Kati doing yoga and hiking Pinckney Island.