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Santa Rosa Churches Exploring a Transit System

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Santa Rosa County’s lack of public transportation is uniting several churches in working on a long-term solution and they have the blessing of county government.

Once upon a time, in 2010, a weekday mini-bus service ran along U.S. 90 between East Milton and Nine Mile Road in Pensacola. But the Santa Rosa County Commission pulled the plug because the program wasn’t self-sufficient.

“Two years, we had 13,000 trips on the system,” Commissioner Don Salter in 2012, shortly after the announcement to end the service.

“Most of those trips were people going to work; going either to Pensacola Junior College [now Pensacola State College], or making a connection to get to UWF,” Salter said. And of course several trips were hospital visits and then some shopping.”

Currently, the Florida Commission for Transportation Disadvantaged provides for older adults, along with the disabled, low-income, and children at-risk. Veterans going to medical appointments can get a ride from the Santa Rosa County Veterans’ Memorial Foundation.

“For a long time, we’ve needed it,” said Rev. Brian Nall, Pastor of Ferris Hill Baptist Church in Milton and a member of the group “Bridges out of Poverty.”

“What we’ve realized is that the lack of transportation in our area has caused a lot of issues for those in poverty,” Nall said. “So our organization started to see what we could do to be an advocate to our county….what can we do to get public transportation into our area.”

The absence of a transportation system doesn’t sound like much to those who can drive their own vehicles. But for those without wheels, public transit is vital in a number of areas: education, employment and healthcare among the major ones.

When Nall approached the County Commission about a year and a half ago, it asked its staff to explore the idea a bit further. It was also around that time, says Nall, that he had an epiphany of sorts.

“I realized that so many churches have resources that they could possibly leverage for public transportation,” said Nall. “At least a little bit of it.”

“[Santa Rosa] Commissioner Bob Cole said ‘Hey look, churches – this is an option. You basically have vehicles that are sitting in your parking lots except for Wednesdays and Sundays,’” said Shawn Ward, Santa Rosa County Transportation Planner. He says they’re looking at what’s needed to get the system on the road.

“Maybe it’s a Dial-a-Ride service, or if somebody needs a ride they put it up on a message board and then one of the local churches can pick it up and take them where they need to go,” Ward said. “There’s questions of additional funding and liability.”

Meanwhile, work is beginning to develop the infrastructure needed for churches to use their vehicles in a coordinated manner. But Rev. Brian Nall says nothing is up and going as yet. There’s also movement towards applying for state and federal grants to help with the cost.

However, this is not an overnight endeavor. A target date of sometime in 2016 was first announced, but Ward says given the funding and other application processes, any transit operation likely would begin in 2017.            

Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.