Five hours on a public bus.
That’s the daily commute for some workers who rely on the public transportation system, known as Palmetto Breeze, to get to and from jobs as housekeepers, cashiers, landscapers and cooks on Hilton Head Island. An estimated 400 people, nearly all African-American, make the commute each day during the island’s summer tourist season.
They are willing, for now, to make the long trip to work. But most say changes are needed to improve efficiency and encourage other would-be workers to ride the buses, funded through fares and federal, state and local funds.
Interviews with more than 30 regular Palmetto Breeze passengers and island businesses this summer revealed the same suggestions on how to improve bus service: add additional routes, purchase more buses and upgrade the vehicles already in the fleet.
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Palmetto Breeze’s commuter routes have only one pickup and drop off time.
The bus that serves Allendale, for example, picks up riders just one time each day at 5 a.m. and returns only at 7:30 p.m.
“You just don’t miss that bus,” said Retha Jenkins, an Allendale resident who, until recently, worked as a housekeeper at Marriott’s Monarch at Sea Pines. “How else are you going to get back to Allendale? No one’s going to drive you two hours.”
Many passengers on the buses work housekeeping and fast food jobs, which often don’t start until late morning, several hours after the bus arrives on Hilton Head. The limited bus schedules mean workers often have to wait three or four hours without pay before their work shifts begin.
It’s not just a worker problem. It also affects employers who rely on the employees, including Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen.
Its manager, Troy Dempsey, who regularly hires workers who ride Palmetto Breeze, said the limited schedule means riders can only work between 10:30 a.m. when the store opens and 4:30 p.m. when the buses begin returning to pick up workers. That schedule doesn’t align with the needs of island restaurants that are often busiest at night.
Adding another shift of buses is one of the most common requests from commuters, said Palmetto Breeze executive director Mary Lou Franzoni. The organization is working now to determine if enough demand exists to add more times. This fall, a grant to the Community Transportation Association of America will fund a survey of Palmetto Breeze riders and their employers to determine if second shifts of buses should be added to some routes, Franzoni said.
Some bus passengers must stand on buses on the busiest routes during peak tourist season — sometimes for up to an hour and a half.
Standing passengers are transferred to other buses when there are other drivers and buses available, Franzoni said.
But riders say that doesn’t always happen.
“That is just not right,” said Roosevelt Williams, who works at a Hilton Head Publix and has been riding the bus from Allendale for more than 10 years. “That’s way too long to be standing, and there’s no railings on here.”
Most buses used by Palmetto Breeze are more than 10 years old. Riders complain the vehicles break down more than they should, making riders miss work.
In fiscal year 2015, there were 38 road calls for mechanical failure on all Palmetto Breeze vehicles, records show. That figure has trended up from the average of 20 calls for service per year in the previous five years, but is still down significantly from the worst years for breakdowns in the system’s recent history like 2001 when there were 141 calls for mechanical failure.
Improving and replacing aging buses is one of the top concerns for Palmetto Breeze going forward, Franzoni said.
But the organization has difficulty raising enough capital. A used charter bus like the ones on the commuter routes typically costs about $500,000, Franzoni said.
Palmetto Breeze relies on special grants to buy new buses since its total annual revenue is about $2.9 million. The money funds the commuter routes as well as on-demand shuttles and other public transportation services.
An effort is underway this year to make the fleet last longer. Six commuter buses will receive $100,000 each for upgrades through a grant from the S.C. Department of Transportation. Palmetto Breeze hopes it will extend the vehicles’ operating lives another five years, Franzoni said.
Employers’ limited role
Hilton Head’s resorts and other major employers have often been vocal in their support of Palmetto Breeze.
But most don’t directly contribute to the system financially. The employers do indirectly support the system through local, state and federal taxes, however.
Just two major employers currently subsidize their employees’ bus tickets, according to Palmetto Breeze staff. The Sonesta Resort and Marriott Vacation Club, which has seven properties on the island, currently buys bus tickets in bulk at a discount, then sells them back to their employees at a reduced rate to help with the cost of commuting.
At Sonesta, the long-standing program reduces the ticket costs to riders by about a third, according to general manager Jay Wiendl.
Many of the workers who ride buses to the Sonesta are employed in the housekeeping department and several have worked at the location for decades, Wiendl said.
“The housekeepers are the heart of a resort’s staff,” Wiendl said. “We want to keep them coming, so that’s what benefits like that are about.”
The large majority of employers don’t take advantage of ticket-buying program, passengers said.
“It’s hard to do $6.50 every day when you just don’t have the funds,” said Bianca Cohen, a Hilton Head Kroger employee from Allendale who has been riding the bus for eight years. “I have three kids ... if we could get tickets cheaper, it adds up.”
Some employers get special contracts with Palmetto Breeze for routes. Recently, the Montage Palmetto Bluff, an upscale Bluffton resort, contracted with Palmetto Breeze to send a bus to the property.
A planned expansion is requiring a nearly doubling of the inn’s staff to 600 workers.
The contract marks the first time a major mainland employer has contracted for a route.
“It just broadens our recruitment,” said Courtney Williamson, Palmetto Bluff’s human resources director, about the new bus route. “We had to get creative and reaching out to those passengers, we hope will work to bring a lot of new people into Palmetto Bluff.”
The resort, however, isn’t subsidizing riders’ tickets.