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11/5/2012 9:01:00 AM
Grassroots effort strives for regional bus system
Cindy Barks/The Daily Courier
Chino Valley Transit Advisory Board Chairman Ron Romley, right, looks on while volunteer bus driver Darrell Barwick  helps a rider onto the bus this week.
Cindy Barks/The Daily Courier
Chino Valley Transit Advisory Board Chairman Ron Romley, right, looks on while volunteer bus driver Darrell Barwick helps a rider onto the bus this week.
Cindy Barks/The Daily CourierBo Homan, a regular rider and volunteer on the Chino Valley Transit system, exits the bus this week, carrying his groceries.
Cindy Barks/The Daily Courier

Bo Homan, a regular rider and volunteer on the Chino Valley Transit system, exits the bus this week, carrying his groceries.
Cindy Barks
The Daily Courier

Most days of the week, Connie Strongbear's husband needs the couple's only car for work.

As a result, the recent Florida transplant tends to feel fairly isolated at the Chino Valley complex she calls home.

"My husband works - sometimes six days a week," she said. "We can't afford another car right now, so I have no way of getting around.

While their apartment complex is located along Highway 89, it is far from most employment and shopping opportunities.

Strongbear is trying, though. Two days of the week, she volunteers at the Chino Valley Public Library, and she is hoping to make the rounds to area businesses to try to find Christmas-season work.

Were it not for the Chino Valley Transit system, however, she could not even do that.

"I take (the bus) on Mondays and Wednesdays to volunteer at the library," Strongbear said Wednesday afternoon as she rode the packed bus. "Otherwise, I'm stuck at home."

Ron Romley, chairman of the Advisory Board for Chino Valley Transit, and his wife Cheri Romley say Strongbear's story is just one of many that volunteers hear regularly on the bus system's rounds.

"You hear the stories - they want to just buy some food for the house, or go to the doctor, or socialize," Cheri Romley said.

The Romleys have been active over the past three years in the establishment of Chino Valley Transit, which provides rides within Chino on Mondays and Wednesdays, and to Prescott on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

And now, they are at the ground level of what they call a grassroots effort to expand the Chino Valley system - in collaboration with non-profit New Horizons Independent Living Center of Prescott Valley - to create a truly regional public transit system.

"We have grown way above what the transportation experts told us we should be," Ron Romley said of the Chino Valley system. "Our buses are too small."

The two organizations are working to generate contributions for the regional system, which they say would use private-sector money, coupled with a federal transit grant, to start a fixed-route bus system that would offer low-cost rides to the general public in Chino Valley, Prescott, and Prescott Valley.

Called Yavapai Regional Transit, the new system has a Dec. 7 deadline for its grant application, and the organization needs to have commitments by that time that show it can raise the $200,000 or so that would be necessary from the private sector.

Organizers say the response has been positive so far, although they declined to mention the entities they have approached for contributions.

Overall, Yavapai Regional Transit is looking at an annual budget of about $500,000, with $300,000 coming from a Federal Transit Administration grant.

Liz Toone, executive director of New Horizons, emphasized that both founding organizations already provide rides to many in the community.

"New Horizons will still continue the work that we're doing," Toone said, noting that the organization provides about 20,000 rides a year to elderly and disabled clients.

Another of New Horizons' missions is job development, and Toone maintains that the regional transit system would be helpful in that area.

"The biggest barrier to self-sufficiency is transportation," Toone said. "It becomes a real catch-22. We're on the road anyway; why can't we do this?"

Adding to the urgency was the Chino Valley Town Council's announcement this year that it could no longer provide the match money for the Chino Valley Transit system after the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30, 2013.

For those riding the Chino Valley bus this past week, any interruption in service would be a devastating blow.

Rider Bo Homan said the system was a godsend after he suffered a major injury in an accident along Highway 89.

After moving to Chino Valley in early 2010, Homan said he regularly walked the three or four miles from his home to the nearest grocery store. But in May 2013, he said, a car hit him while he tried to cross the highway carrying a load of groceries.

The effects of the injury still linger, Homan said, and he is no longer able to walk long distances.

On Wednesday, Homan, who also volunteers for Chino Valley Transit, boarded the bus carrying several bags of groceries.

Although his injury put him out of the job market, Homan said the bus keeps him active.

"It gets me out of the house," he said. "I'm able to accomplish things. This really opened up the whole town for me."

Indeed, the bus is seeing heavy use by people with disabilities. On Wednesday, it carried two women in wheelchairs - one riding home after having lunch at the Chino Valley Senior Center, and another going home from The Learning Center. Romley said the handicap capabilities of the buses are usually filled to capacity.

In October, the Prescott Valley Town Council agreed to send a letter of support for the Yavapai Regional Transit's grant application, and the organization got a similar endorsement from the Central Yavapai Metropolitan Planning Organization (CYMPO).

At the same time, the CYMPO board heard opposition to the idea from Steve Silvernale, who operates Prescott Transit Authority's Citibus system in Prescott.

Silvernale maintains that the system would be in competition with his system, but Yavapai Regional Transit organizers say their routes would not duplicate the Citibus' routes.

Romley says the success of the Chino Valley Transit system shows the need for public transit in the area.

"We've heard from day-one, 'it's going to fail,'" he said of the Chino system. "But we have doubled the ridership, and it has worked."

Organizers hope to have the Yavapai Transit System running by sometime between July 1 and Oct. 1, 2013.

Information about volunteering for or contributing to the program is available by emailing chinovalleytransit@yahoo.com.

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