Opinion: Ben Franklin Transit cut corners and customers are paying the price

The Benton Franklin Transit Three Rivers Transfer Station in Kennewick.
The Benton Franklin Transit Three Rivers Transfer Station in Kennewick. Tri-City Herald

The Ben Franklin Transit Board made the right call when it approved a short-term fix ensuring service continues for a select group of needy customers.

While we commend the board for moving quickly, we can’t help but wonder why the situation suddenly turned so desperate.

The problem arose when the taxi company that provided night, Sunday and feeder services for Ben Franklin Transit closed with little public notice, leaving hundreds of people stranded with no way to get to work, school, church or to other appointments.

A-1 Tri-City Taxi had been in business for nearly 40 years and a partner to Ben Franklin Transit for 16 years, filling the gaps not covered by the regular bus service.

But the Ben Franklin Transit budget shows the agency took $1 million away from the taxi company at the start of this year.

Interestingly enough, the board’s new plan to reinstate the lost service is estimated at about the same amount – $1.2 million – and will be taken out of operating reserves.

To those of us on the outside, the correlation is obvious.

Perhaps there is more to the story, but we question why $1 million was cut from the taxi company in the first place. It was a local business that seemed to be doing an effective job.

Now transit officials have had to scramble to provide transportation for those people left abandoned by the closure of the taxi business.

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Ben Franklin Transit headquarters in Richland File Tri-City Herald

That means extending operating hours for some bus routes and rolling out “general demand” Dial-A-Ride service for customers who live outside the regular bus service boundary.

As for restoring public transportation on Sundays, that’s not going to happen.

The Transit Board is scheduled to discuss at its Dec. 13 meeting the possibility of providing retired vans to nonprofit groups so churches can transport people to services.

Often, people who rely on public transportation are disabled, lower income or unable to drive. Tri-Citians dependent on the local taxi company totaled 134 on weekdays and 360 on the weekends, according to Transit statistics.

That amounted to 54,000 rides a year, which shows a significant need in the community.

Moving forward, Transit officials must do a better job of monitoring how it serves those who need evening and weekend transportation services, as well as those who live outside standard bus routes.

In addition, the relentless growth of the Tri-Cities is not going to stop. Our community needs long-range transit plans that consider new and expanding neighborhoods.

Cutting corners, as we’ve seen in this current situation, doesn’t always work out.

Now it appears that, in the end, Ben Franklin Transit is going to spend more money and provide less service than if it had left well enough alone and continued paying the same amount to the local taxi company.

What a shame.