Locals have the chance to help the county get the wheels moving on new public transportation programs today, as the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG) hosts a public hearing on unmet transit needs.

County residents are invited to attend the hearing, which begins at 10 a.m. in the Board of Supervisors Hearing Room in downtown Santa Barbara, and present their comments and concerns about the area’s existing public transportation system. SBCAG Transportation Planner Sarkes Khachek said the meeting should provide SBCAG with feedback regarding areas in which the public transportation system is failing to meet local residents’ needs.

Khachek said the information gathered at the meeting will be reviewed by the Santa Barbara County Transit Advisory Council (SBCTAC) and discussed in the annual Transit Needs Assessment report, published by SBCAG – a coalition that assesses the services the county provides to its constituents, such as housing and public transportation.

The report, according to the SBCAG website, is an evaluation of the public transit standards the county should meet in order to receive money from the state. Transit funds usually come from California’s Local Transportation Fund and the State Transportation Assistance Fund.

“At the public hearing, the community can provide input about new, unmet transit services,” Khachek said. “Through the public hearing and additional public outreach, we are able to take comments and review them. After the review, the SBCTAC will tell the Board of Directors that there are either no unmet transit needs, there are unmet transit needs that are unreasonable to meet or there are unmet transit needs that are reasonable to meet.”

Matt Dobberteen, alternative transportation manager for the county, said SBCAG will focus more on discussing new transit routes and programs during the meeting, rather than fixing small problems within the existing system.

“A past example of an unmet need that was addressed was the addition of a Sunday bus service in Santa Maria last year, after members of the community expressed how difficult it was for them to get to church,” Dobberteen said. “These are the flavor of comments we try to work with.”

Dobberteen said he thinks local agriculture workers from Santa Maria will probably speak at the hearing about the creation of a public transportation system that could take them to the fields where they work – usually five to 10 miles from their homes. The workers made a similar request at a hearing in Santa Maria earlier this year.

Santa Barbara County Third District Supervisor Brooks Firestone said the county is working on an experimental bus system to shuttle agricultural workers – particularly those working on strawberry farms – to the fields. The unpredictable nature of agricultural work could make it difficult to create the route, however, because the harvesting only happens during certain times of year.

“Agricultural work varies with the weather, the season and the schedule of the farm,” Firestone said. “Sometimes there’s a crowd going out to the fields and other times there’s nobody going out.”

Before enacting any new transit services, the county has to decide whether the proposals are feasible, Dobberteen said.

“There are a couple of different angles the county must take before making a decision about a potential service,” Dobberteen said. “First, it has to think about the practicality and feasibility of the service, and second, it has to think about where the money for the service would come from.”