An innovative public/private partnership gets Harrisburg residents to work

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Harold West’s life took a major turn for the worse following the death of his mother and son in the same month.

Falling into what he calls “a spiritual abyss,” West was also jobless and about to be evicted from his apartment. Then he learned about a pilot program that provided public transportation for 150 unemployed and underemployed Harrisburg city residents to jobs at the Amazon warehouse in Carlisle, some 30 miles away. It helped put West on the road to recovery.

Hundreds, if not thousands of people will now go from poverty to self-sufficiency simply because they have the opportunity to hop on a bus to get to work.Reverend Scott Minnich

“If that bus hadn’t been there, I don’t know where I would be right now, to be perfectly honest with you,” he says from the comfort of his recently rented high-rise apartment overlooking the Susquehanna River in downtown Harrisburg. “This program helped put food on my table, it enabled me to dress well, and I was able to get a home because I had a way to get to work and earn a living.”

Launched as a public/private partnership, the pilot was such an overwhelming success that, if approved by the Capital Area Transit (CAT) at its board meeting on April 28, it will be reinstated on May 23.

The new initiative builds on the success of the pilot, expanding from one to six employer stops and picking up passengers at several new locations, including East Pennsboro, Enola and Mechanicsburg in Cumberland County after departing downtown Harrisburg.

A Capital Area Transit bus
A Capital Area Transit bus

Another upgrade is that CAT, the region’s public transportation system, will now run the buses (the pilot used a private company). Officials are revamping the Carlisle Circulator, an in-town bus route, to better accommodate local workers who want to utilize public transportation to get to their jobs.

Bill Jones, CAT’s general manager, believes the program has great potential given the research CAT did after the pilot ended in January.

“We conducted an employee survey and used that information to map via GIS where workers live,” he explains. “[This] will allow us to establish bus routes in areas with the greatest impact and enable us to bring the people from where they live to where they work.”

The initiative will be administered within the existing CAT budget, meaning no tax increase to Cumberland and Dauphin County residents.Amazon Fulfillment Center in Carlisle

Better still, the program will actually increase tax revenues by creating new taxpayers and moving individuals off public assistance. Reverend Scott Minnich, Case Manager/Corps Liaison for The Salvation Army, Harrisburg Capital City Region, helped conceive the pilot.

“These new improvements will be a life-changer for many people who can’t get to these good-paying jobs because of a lack of transportation,” he says. “Hundreds, if not thousands of people will now go from poverty to self-sufficiency simply because they have the opportunity to hop on a bus to get to work. This is a great example of government and private entities working together to improve the condition of people’s lives.”

Reverend Scott Minnich and Harold West
Reverend Scott Minnich and Harold West

Jonathan Bowser, CEO of the Cumberland Area Economic Development Corporation (CAEDC), sees the program as a big win across many spectrums. (CAEDC is participating in the new initiative on behalf of area employers.)

“There really should be a major employment retention boost through this program in addition to the jobs that it will help fill,” he says.

Employers — both in the Harrisburg region and around the state — often struggle to fill jobs.

“An employer-based approach to public transportation really should be the wave (of the future),” adds Bowser. “It certainly has the potential to be implemented in other areas of the Commonwealth as we ask ourselves, ‘Where do our employees live and how do we ensure that we get them to their work destinations?'”

Minnich agrees with Bowser’s assessment.

“The pilot overwhelmingly demonstrated that people really do want to work, to have jobs and provide for themselves,” he says, “if they have a way to get there.”

JAMES MENTZER is president of Mentzer Communications and a freelance writer whose first book, Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well, was published in February. He resides in Harrisburg. 

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Region: South Central

Community, Harrisburg, transportation