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Wednesday August 20th 2014

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Bus Stop Blues

lowreyWith the temperature in the 40s and Leonard Cohen crooning over the PA system, employees with Escambia County Area Transit began this morning with a plea.

“Since today is Valentine’s, let’s show the love for your mass transit system” urged Mike Lowrey, president of ECAT’s employee union.

Joined by riders, the union held a press conference this morning to express its concern with the possibility that the city of Pensacola may withhold its portion of a recently-passed four-cent gas tax meant to fully fund the mass transit system.

“Sixty-five percent of the ridership are people from the city, they are residents of the city,” Lowrey said later. “Sixty percent of the bus routes go through the city.”

Last year, the Escambia County Commission passed the gas tax. A week ago, Commission Chairman Gene Valentino announced that the city administration had indicated it intended to use the portion of the gas tax collected within the city—estimated to be between $700,000 and $800,000 annually—to further economic development efforts at the Pensacola International Airport.

When asked about Valentino’s assertion, City Administrator Bill Reynolds told the Pensacola City Council this week that no decision had been made as of yet.

As Lowrey spoke this morning, ECAT bus number 9929 hummed behind him. Passengers, heading toward Cordova Mall and Pensacola State College, streamed in its doors.

“This one just came from the Westside,” Lowrey said, pointing to another bus. “That was packed.”

In an effort to demonstrate what the lack of the city’s gas-tax funds might mean, ECAT employees marked several buses with a large red X. The X signified a bus that stood to be taken off the street.

Pensacola City Councilwoman Sherri Myers also joined the ECAT employees for the morning press conference. She described mass transit as an “essential service” that is important to economic development efforts.

“Most people who ride the bus ride it to go to work,” Myers said.

The councilwoman also recalled her own childhood in Montgomery, Ala., where she said her mother was an avid bus rider.

“I grew up in a family that never owned a car—it’s very personal to me,” Myers said. “We only had two kinds of transportation, mass transit and the leather-sole express.”

Myers said it would ultimately be up to the city council to determine how to use the county-passed gas tax. She’s hoping it chooses to dedicate it to help fund ECAT.

“If the city council doesn’t,” Myers said, “then we have said to our citizens that the resources you need to get to work and spend your money in our city doesn’t matter to us.”