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New home, fresh start for Duplin's rural transit after challenging pandemic years

Ryan Shaffer / PRE
Director Angel Venecia says her department has outgrown its current office and the new facility is an opportunity for growth.

The Duplin County Transportation Department is getting a new home. The department is charged with providing subsidized public transit to 48,000 residents across the state’s 9th largest county. Last year, they provided more than 35,000 rides. Director Angel Venecia says the new building is not only a much-needed upgrade but also an opportunity to talk about the benefits of public transportation – especially in a rural county.

“We’re very limited in this old building. It’s outdated, and it just doesn’t benefit us,” she said.

The current office is a cramped, single-story building with a blue-tin exterior just off Duplin Street in Kenansville. Currently, the department’s vehicles are parked in a separate, unsecure location. The new building will be on Duplin Commons near the Events Center, and will feature secure parking, an awning to shield drivers from inclement weather during inspections and a training room.

Duplin’s transportation department has been operating at a reduced capacity for years. It has 16 positions for drivers, full-time and part-time. But since the pandemic, they’ve averaged 5 vacancies. Prior to 2020, Venecia says her team provided more than 40,000 rides a year. The post-pandemic labor market, however, has only made hiring more difficult.

“We have the capacity to potentially do more, but our hands are tied and bound because we don't have the employees to fill the positions,” Venecia said.

She says the new facility is an opportunity for a fresh start and to dispel some common misconceptions about public transportation.

Every county has a public transportation agency, but rural agencies do more than just move people. One in 10 riders use public transit to access healthcare, according to the U.S. Dept. Of Transportation, and that need is greater in counties like Duplin—as distance to the nearest hospital or clinic is just one factor affecting rural health.

“Every day we’re breaking down barriers,” Venecia said. “We’re helping eliminate or remove those barriers by providing access to healthcare.”

The department also regularly provides rides for Smithfield employees and students at James Sprunt Community College.

Venecia says ridership, or at least awareness of the department’s services, would be higher if it weren’t for the negative ideas associated with public transit.

“That is one of the issues that rural public transit has is that there’s a stigma associated with public transit,” she said. “Anybody and I mean anybody in this county that wanted a ride is eligible to ride.”

Rural transportation agencies like Duplin county’s face longstanding challenges.

The NC First Commission, an NCDOT team tasked with evaluating transportation needs in rural areas, says rural transportation projects can’t compete for state funds because the scoring criteria—like traffic volume and congestion—are less likely to apply to rural routes. Also, long distances and sparse populations make rural transit more costly to provide.

With the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the CARES Act, Venecia has found it easier to secure funding for her department, but when those laws expire, she anticipates finances will once again be the biggest challenge.

“On an average year, the funding opportunities for public transit are limited,” Venecia said. “NCDOT does it’s best to advocate for us but most of the time, it’s one of our biggest challenges.”

The money for the new building comes from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), a $1.9 trillion federal stimulus bill passed in 2021. Construction is set to be completed in June, and open to the public in August. Public transit is open to anyone within the county. To book an appointment call your county's office at least 2 days in advance.

Ryan is an Arkansas native and podcast junkie. He was first introduced to public radio during an internship with his hometown NPR station, KUAF. Ryan is a graduate of Tufts University in Somerville, Mass., where he studied political science and led the Tufts Daily, the nation’s smallest independent daily college newspaper. In his spare time, Ryan likes to embroider, attend musicals, and spend time with his fiancée and two cats.