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Bus system is a controversial necessity

Written by Erin Heffernan

Beaufort County’s public transportation system has experienced both controversy and financial woes in its 38-year history.

It has survived because it serves a vital role: providing workers for Hilton Head Island’s tourism-based economy.

The beginnings of a bus system

Even before the public transportation system launched in 1978, rural, black residents from outside of Beaufort County were already making the trip to work on Hilton Head Island.

They would hitch rides on converted school buses and the back of trucks before there were public buses to ride, according to accounts in The Island Packet.

The bus system was launched to fill two needs. Commuting workers needed a reliable way to get to their island jobs. And employers needed workers to support the town’s growing economy.

The public transportation system served only Beaufort and Jasper counties at first, but soon extended in 1984 to Allendale, Colleton and Hampton counties under the name, the Lowcountry Regional Transportation Authority.

In its first two decades, the system was plagued with financial problems, filing for bankruptcy in 1988, and facing national attention for a system critics called exploitive of black workers.

The authority rebranded its bus service in 2007 to its current image — Palmetto Breeze — to get away from the years of negative press over finances, The Packet reported at the time.

"This is a brand new start for the whole system and hopefully washes away that negativity,” the executive director at the time, Rochelle Ferguson, told the paper.

But now, the name may contribute to a lack of awareness of what the system does for Hilton Head’s economy, said current director Mary Lou Franzoni.

The 40-foot charter buses on the seven Palmetto Breeze commuter routes often get mistaken for tour buses to Hilton Head, she said.

“People who have lived here for years will say to me, ‘Palmetto Breeze? What is that? A mixed drink?’” Franzoni said. “It’s unbelievable.”

Despite the lack of awareness, the buses provide a significant number of workers to Hilton Head businesses. Consider:

▪  In 2014, passengers took 108,000 one-way trips on the Palmetto Breeze commuter lines.

▪  During peak summer tourism months, ridership numbers indicate an average of about 400 people travel round-trip each day over a month on the buses to and from the island. That means that significantly more workers likely rely on the buses in some way, as some only ride a few times a week for part-time jobs.

▪  Ridership has rebounded significantly in the last 5 years, following a dip during and after the Great Recession, with a low of about 79,000 one-way trips recorded in fiscal year 2010.

Such fluctuations are always closely linked with unemployment on the island, said Ginnie Kozak, a Palmetto Breeze board member and planning director for the Lowcountry Council of Governments, which oversees Palmetto Breeze.

When unemployment is lowest on the island and demand for workers is highest, ridership tends to grow, Kozak said.

The places left behind

Allendale, a town about 60 miles north of Hilton Head, is one of the busiest stops for Palmetto Breeze. In the little town, jobs are scarce.

But in the 1940s and ‘50s, the town was a booming stop for tourists, alive with hotels and restaurants. It was a midpoint on U.S. 301, then the main north-south thoroughfare on the eastern seaboard.

A new highway connecting the East Coast, called Interstate 95, started to open to traffic in the1960s, bypassing Allendale, cutting 35 miles to the east and hobbling the town.

The area was forever changed. Just as Hilton Head was begininng to grow, Allendale’s tourism industry collapsed.

Today the county’s poverty level is the second highest in South Carolina. From 2005 to 2015, unemployment in the county was 14.5 percent, compared to 6.4 percent in Beaufort County.

Other local economies have suffered in recent decades too, including those of Hampton, Allendale and Colleton counties. Jobs disappeared in agriculture over the years and the nearby Savannah River Site nuclear facility laid off about 10,000 workers in the 1990s following the Cold War.

Without local jobs, generations of families have turned to the buses to find employment on Hilton Head where there is often more work than people to do it.

Bus driver, Carolyn Rollins, who drives a Hampton County Palmetto Breeze bus, for example, also has a daughter and two foster children currently riding the buses to get to work on the island.

It’s common to meet siblings, parents and children, cousins and neighbors who ride the bus together.

“There just aren’t a lot of options for work where we live,” Rollins said. “People go where they know they can find something.”

The ride to Hilton Head is also attractive because it can often offer $4 or $5 more an hour than the few jobs available in rural areas, said passenger Shayla Walls from Hampton County.

Walls has been riding the buses for 6 years to work as a housekeeper at the Tide Point assisted living facility on Hilton Head. She wakes up at 4:20 a.m. every morning, two hours before her 6-year-old daughter, Ja’naya.

Most workers on the buses make between $8 and $14 an hour at their jobs on the island.

Still others say the wages still need to be higher.

“The pay is better on the island,” said Walls’ fellow Tide Point housekeeper Mildred Graves, who has been riding the bus for 30 years. “But they still don’t pay near enough.”

So why do these workers stay in these rural towns when they have to travel so far for work?

Riders often say they can’t afford to live closer to Hilton Head or even near Beaufort County, which posted the state’s highest median monthly cost for rent and utilities at $1,042 in 2014, according to the U.S. Census.

Commuters also stay for reasons other than economic concerns.

“They don’t just stay because they have to,” Allendale community activist and city council member Lottie Lewis said. “They stay because this is where they have roots, where they have family support. This is their home.”

There are still costs attached to the journey though. Older generations are often called on to look after young children and school-age kids don’t have their parents home after school, Lewis said.

Lewis is one of the community members in Allendale working to improve the town, including opening a community center this fall for the young people in Allendale, including children whose parents work on Hilton Head.

“You’ve got generations of people here whose mother or father went off to work on the island,” she said. “They weren’t home. They were doing what they had to to provide.”