Lower Shore begins sorting transit options to create master plan

Goal is service that is efficient, comprehensive

June 23, 1999|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

SALISBURY -- In the rural Lower Eastern Shore, a fleet of buses and passenger vans is tackling one of the enduring problems of the sprawling, 1,200-square-mile region -- getting workers from poor communities scattered among three counties to jobs in Salisbury, Ocean City and other employment hubs.

In Somerset County, drivers are racking up 40,000 miles a month, running 18 hours a day, seven days a week, all part of a service that has been seen as a model for easing welfare recipients into the work force.

Neighboring Wicomico County offers five-day bus service in the Salisbury area and limited service in outlying communities. In Worcester County, where resort hotels and other Ocean City businesses are begging for workers, a new late-night Ocean City-Pocomoke City run has met with limited success.

Streamlining services

With a meeting yesterday at Salisbury State University, officials from the tri-county region began work on a yearlong project to produce a transportation master plan. The goal is to streamline a hodgepodge of services that most officials believe should be administered on a regional level, rather than county by county or agency by agency.

The idea, says Memo Diriker, who heads the non-profit Project Management Group at Salisbury State University, is to create the region's first comprehensive transportation system, one that will serve a wide range of clients -- from factory workers to elderly residents and disabled riders.

"There has been a groundswell of support and interest in taking a regional approach," Diriker said. "A large part of the push for this has come from the business community. This is an economic development issue, it's a social issue. But right now, taken as a whole, it's a mess."

The nonprofit university management group, which provides a variety of research services for private industry and economic development offices on the Eastern Shore, is awaiting approval of a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor.

In addition to economic development concerns, social service leaders say transportation difficulties continue to limit their effectiveness in rural areas.

"It's as if the beauty and rural nature of the area are our Achilles' heel in terms of support services," said Susan Seling, who heads the Life Crisis Center, a nonprofit agency that provides counseling for victims of child abuse, domestic violence and sexual assault in all three counties.

Getting to work

Many of the region's large employers, including poultry processors such as Perdue and Tyson, have operated private bus services for years, often hauling workers long distances.

"There are jobs out there waiting for people who can get to them," Brad Bellacicco, executive director of the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce, told 150 business, transportation and social service agency representatives who gathered to hear about the project yesterday. "The real challenge for many people is getting to and from work."

In recent years, Ocean City businesses have been hit by a rising employment rate and ever-increasing housing costs that have shrunk the number of high school and college students who traditionally filled thousands of summer jobs.

Now, resort business owners see unemployment rates in southern Worcester and in Somerset County that are triple the state's 3.4 percent rate and wonder how best to tap the labor supply.

"We are not getting the college students any more," said Annemarie Dickerson, president of the city's Hotel, Motel and Restaurant Association. "Our season is now 365 days a year. We need to pull solid, dependable, local people. To do that, we need flexibility" in a transportation system.

Somerset County officials say the transportation component of their welfare-to-work program illustrates the depth of the available work force in rural areas of the Shore. Since beginning bus service, welfare rolls have been trimmed by more than 80 percent, said Teri Jackson, assistant director of family investment programs. The bus service costs about $200,000 to operate, but the county has already saved about $1.7 million that would have gone to public assistance.

"Somerset was the only county in Maryland that didn't have some kind of transit system," Jackson said. "This just demonstrates that our customers do have a good work ethic. I've been in social services for 20 years. Who would have thought we'd be in the transportation business?"

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