Study finds faults in Augusta's transit system

System ranks third-worst in 100 metro areas

Shalonda Harris, who supports herself and two children by working at a dry-cleaning service, has to be at her job by 8:30 every morning.

 

She goes to the bus stop near her home on Lumpkin Road 11/2 hours before work to make it on time. The trip takes two buses, and if she misses the first one, it's an hour before another comes along.

"I've missed it a couple of times. Sometimes the driver is early," Harris said.

By car, the same trip would take 10 minutes.

Bus riders have told Augusta Commission members that the city has too few bus routes and that wait times between buses are too long to get people reliably to work.

Now, a national study has suggested the same thing.

The Brookings Institution study "Missed Opportunities: Jobs and Transit in Metropolitan America" examines how well city transit systems are connecting working-age residents to jobs in the nation's 100 largest metro areas.

Augusta's was one of the worst, ranking 98 out of 100.

The study found only 30 percent of the Augusta metro area's working-age residents have a transit stop within three-quarters of a mile of their homes. The national average is 69 percent.

Augusta riders, on average, must wait 27.9 minutes between buses during rush hour. The national average is 10.1 minutes.

Buses in Augusta provide riders access to only 16 percent of area jobs in less than 90 minutes. The national average is 30 percent.

Augusta's lack of job connectivity matters because low-income people -- those who have been hit hardest by the recession -- use the bus more often to get to work.

Robert Fuentes, one of the Brookings report's authors, said 7 percent of city workers nationwide use public transit to get to work and, among low-income workers, the number rises to 11 percent.

A 2009 survey of Augusta bus riders showed 74 percent use Augusta Public Transit to commute to jobs.

"We believe public transit is a critical part of the economic and social fabric of metropolitan areas," Fuentes said. "We think that the top 100 metro areas are critical for our economic recovery and job growth."

A second county-sponsored transit study conducted in 2009 said Augusta's bus system has suffered continuous service reductions and that only the most transit-disadvantaged riders now use the system. The county study gives even more details than the Brookings study on how Augusta's bus system performs compared with its peers.

Looking at similar-sized transit systems in Macon, Savannah and Columbus, Ga., and in Greenville, S.C., Augusta's bus system ranked second only to Savannah for the number of riders it attracts per mile and per hour.

However, the system rated second-lowest for the number of miles its routes cover per local population. It rated the lowest for the amount of funding it appropriates for each route-mile and route-hour.

One of the most glaring differences is financing. Augusta has not used state or federal grants to help fund public transit since 2004. It's the only system of the five that has not done so.

Other cities, on average, have received more than $1 million per year using such grants. In Augusta, that's enough money to add a route or two.

Augusta Public Transit Director Heyward Johnson said federal grants require matching local expenditures, which is difficult to do when city budgets are being reduced.

THE 2009 STUDY PROPOSED better designed routes, which wouldn't increase costs. When and if more funds are raised, the study recommends shorter wait times between buses, more service to south Augusta, a cross-town route connecting south Augusta residents directly to west Augusta shopping and retail jobs, and eventually, a route to Fort Gordon.

So far, the initial cost-free changes have not been implemented, except that two low-performing routes have been eliminated. Of the other recommendations, a cross-town route has been added, but it only connects west Augusta shopping areas and does not extend to south Augusta.

Despite Augusta Public Transit's low performance compared with other transit systems, several Augusta commissioners said they likely would not expand it, even if state and federal grants or other new money could be secured.

The commission last week privatized its bus system, a move which will save $400,000 a year. Commissioner Joe Bowles said the savings will be used to reduce public transit's budget, not to expand its service.

Bowles and Commissioners Matt Aiken, Jerry Brigham, Grady Smith and Wayne Guilfoyle say the new contractor will improve existing service by running transit more professionally. None of the five said they favor expanding it.

"Not right now. Let's fix what we have right now," Smith said.

Commissioner Joe Jackson said he would expand service using federal or state grants if there was ridership demand for the new route. Bowles said the system is fine as it is.

"I don't believe our system is underfunded. I believe it's been mismanaged," Bowles said. "I think we would like to, not necessarily expand, but to make it better. If the money comes from outside grants -- that would be additional income, where we could enhance the routes ... (but expanding) depends on whether the contractor recommends it, in my opinion."

By contract, the commission controls adding bus routes, not the vendor.

Commissioner Bill Lockett said he would fund more bus routes and favored applying for state and federal grants to do so. If that didn't work, he would use local funds by shifting money away from expenditures that are a lower priority, he said.

"There hasn't been the political will to provide the resources for transit," Lockett said. "Sometimes you need to spend money and be willing to make an investment ... Right now outside Fort Gordon there's a big sign saying they're looking for people to employ. But many people can't get there."

Commissioners Corey Johnson, Alvin Mason and J.R. Hatney did not return calls asking for comment.

Geraldine Wilson, the leader of the Augusta Bus Riders Association, a grassroots group of riders that wants better bus service and especially more routes and more frequent routes, said seven months of discussions with the county have so far added up to "nothing but a great big zero."

"Maybe they are waiting for the new company coming in, but so far all we have had is a lot of empty promises," Wilson said. "Not one thing on the list have we gotten. They haven't even posted schedules at bus stops."

More bus riders

Bus ridership in Augusta has gone up with rising gas prices.

Augusta Public Transit Director Heyward Johnson said city buses delivered 237,207 rides in April 2011. That's up 32 percent from April 2010, when it delivered 179,506 rides.

The average price for a gallon of gas in Augusta rose to $3.61 in April 2011, up from $2.69 in April 2010, according to AAA Auto Club South.

"Thirty-two percent (more ridership) is an unusual increase," Johnson said. "But looking at articles in trade magazines, it's happening in other places, too. In some places, where they've had even more of an increase in gas prices, (bus rides) have gone up even more."

Augusta transit system by the numbers

98 Augusta's ranking out of the nation's 100 largest metro areas

30 Percent of residents with a stop within three-quarters of a mile of their homes / National average: 69 percent

27.9 Minutes between buses during rush hour / National average: 10.1 minutes

16 Percent of area jobs that buses provide access to in less than 90 minutes / National average: 30 percent

Source: The Brookings Institution

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