KP School Bus Connects, the only regularly scheduled transportation program available to the community, will come to an end June 30. The demise of the program has led to a new push to meet the challenges of public transportation needs on the Key Peninsula.
Established by The Mustard Seed Project in 2011, School Bus Connects utilized school buses during off-hours to make scheduled stops on the KP a few days a week. Routes in the mornings started at either Vaughn or Evergreen Elementary schools and ended at the Purdy Park and Ride. In the afternoons the buses reversed routes. A grant from the Puget Sound Educational District using funds from the Washington State Department of Transportation covered the costs.
In 2013, TMSP transferred the program and grant administration to the Key Peninsula Community Council under the guidance of then board member Marcia Harris. Two years ago, Edale Clark took Harris’ place.
Over the years the schedules varied and buses were used for special events, such as the annual KP Farm Tour. Clark said the pandemic, staffing changes at the school district and perhaps changes in community needs adversely affected the program. Ridership fell and staff at PSED decided not to request a grant renewal for the first time since it took over the program 10 years ago.
“There were a number of challenges, and it was never a long-term solution,” said Daeveene May, a transportation specialist in the Pierce County Human Services Department. “We never moved forward to work on the long-term solution.”
May runs the Pierce County Coordinated Transportation Coalition and is leading the effort to fill the Key Peninsula transportation gap. In its 2019 strategic plan, the coalition identified the KP as one of two geographic areas with significant transportation needs.
“By my assessment a lot of the issues on the Key Peninsula are infrastructure,” he said. “There is no good place for a bus to pull over safely to provide good service. There is hardly any lighting to keep riders and the bus safe.”
But the first step in closing the gap was to identify a local advocate. “This can’t just come from the county,” he said.
Susan Paganelli, co-director of the KP Partnership for a Healthy Community, stepped up to serve in that role. The partnership was established in 2015 under the umbrella of the Key Peninsula Community Council and became an independent 501(c)(3) in 2021. (See “KP Partnership for a Healthy Community Goes Independent,” KP News, November 2021).
The partnership has focused on hunger, transportation and health care on the Key Peninsula. After re-evaluating their work on transportation, it decided to get involved at a policy level, which led to working with the transportation coalition.
The next step, May said, is to collect meaningful data. The coalition conducted a transportation survey for all of Pierce County in 2021. It had nearly 2,000 responses, but just 150 from the Key Peninsula. May would like to have more.
“I have all kinds of ideas, but I need data to drive the train,” May said. “We need to reach every citizen on the Key Peninsula to be sure we have full representation.”
May expects a $50,000 grant from WSDOT this spring to administer and analyze a survey specific to the Key Peninsula and will be working with the partnership to complete the task. The survey should drill down to details about exactly how and why people would use new transportation and what the barriers are.
“We will be going full-out for this in the next few months,” Paganelli said. “The plan is to do a robust survey outreach through the end of April, then hold forums in May and June. We expect to engage the county, local nonprofits, the school district, Pierce Transit and community members. We will work with stakeholders to create ideas and potential implementation options by July 31.”
“Transportation is a hard nut to crack,” May said. “It may be clear after the survey is analyzed that a spine route isn’t feasible or needed and we need to focus on a demand route. It might be that we expand existing programs. We might get a memorandum of understanding with community partners from Kitsap or Mason counties.”
Newly elected Pierce County Councilmember Robyn Denson (D-7th, Gig Harbor) said that transportation came up frequently when she campaigned. Closing the gap, she said, is part of the county’s bigger vision of equity. “The (solutions) won’t be gold star,” she said, “but we can start filling needs, get feedback, tweak and build.” She anticipates that using smaller vehicles will offer more flexibility.
“We want to use the assets we have to the fullest effect,” Paganelli said. “It may be an out-of-the-box mix of things. I am sure there are lots of options. We just need to figure out how to use them in effective and regular ways.”
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