Private bus operator Mobility declares success

 The decision to outsource Au­gusta Public Transit remains controversial, but new operator Mobility Transit Services says ridership is higher since the private firm took over.

Mobility General Manager Mike Rosson said the number of bus riders increased 12 percent from August through October compared to the same period in 2010. Ridership also grew by 11 percent on Augusta Public Transit’s rural ride service, and by 2 percent on its paratransit service for people with disabilities, he said.

During 2010 and 2009, Augusta Public Transit averaged about 2,300 individual weekday trips, according to data filed with the Federal Transit Administration. Rosson said Mobility will present its data and recommendations to the Augusta Commission next month.

Mobility, a foreign limited liability corporation registered in Florida doing business out of Knoxville, Tenn., has only one client: Augusta. Company President Kevin Adams has cited his more than 30 years experience both with public transit systems and private operators such as Veolia and Greyhound Lines.

In June, the firm won a five-year contract to run Augusta Public Transit at an annual cost less than the approximately $5 million the city has spent in recent years to run it. The vote was 6-3, and the opposed commissioners -- Corey Johnson, Alvin Mason and Bill Lockett -- continue to question the move, which left about 70 city employees without jobs. Most were hired by Mobility – with some now earning both city pensions and Mobility salaries.

The busiest bus route remains Route 12, which carries passengers from downtown to Augusta Mall by way of Augusta State University and Georgia Health Sciences University. Students with valid identification ride for free.

“Since we have been here we have seen a tremendous increase,” Rosson said, attributing the increase to higher university enrollment, “getting the word out” and better service.

Staying on schedule

Feeding into greater ridership is drivers’ ability to stay on schedule, allowing riders to board and make connections on time in a clean, well-maintained bus, Rosson said.

He said Mobility hasn’t had to pay any of the penalties detailed in the company’s contract with Augusta. According to the agreement, Mobility must pay $100 each time a driver leaves a stop too soon, $50 per missed trip, $500 if riders levy more than 30 complaints with the city during a quarter and numerous other fines for various transit-related infractions. Plus, Mobility is required to provide a monthly database of complaints to the city.

“We stay focused on the job we need to do,” Rosson said. “We stay very in tune to the contract; we stay very in tune to the community.”

Riders still want more, however, including members of Augusta Bus Riders Association, who detailed many complaints while the city was considering outsourcing.

Association President Geraldine Wilson acknowledged the buses are running on schedule but repeated a common complaint about limited routes and hours and lack of Sunday service.

Restaurant workers, for instance, typically get off at least two hours after the last bus run to the mall or Augusta Exchange; other workers need to clock in early in the morning.

The alternative is a pricey cab ride, said Wilson, who thought she’d have to walk home Friday because the last Washington Road bus left the station at 5:50 p.m.

“It’s really impacting people’s livelihood,” she said. “The people really need the buses to run to at least 10 o’clock at night.”

Karen Ellis, a retired former editor of the Fort Gordon Signal who frequents the paratransit service because she has multiple sclerosis, shared a similar complaint about the limited service.

“Persons with disabilities have more to do than go to the doctor Monday through Friday,” said Ellis, who has had to spend $50 on a cab to church, versus a $3 paratransit ride.

Questions persist

Augusta Commission members who opposed the move continue to question why the city outsourced transit management.

Lockett has reiterated a call for an external forensic audit of the decision to hire Mobility along with other city decisions involving public-private partnerships.

Johnson questioned Mobility’s background in buses, saying the firm is relying on knowledgeable Augusta Public Transit employees it brought over to keep the system running.

“If we wanted to just keep it mediocre, we could have kept the plan we had,” Johnson said.

Mobility has continued the nine routes and schedule that were in place when it took over, but potentially will present ideas for changing the service to the commission next month, according to Rosson. Suggested routes to Fort Gordon and Sunday routes, for instance, “may be part of our overview that we give to the commissioners,” he said.

In the meantime, Mobility has recently returned staffing levels to normal, a critical factor in reducing employee overtime. But that is also a challenge because the firm has a detailed screening process, including a background check, drug screen, driving history and Department of Transportation physical, he said.

Other city officials cite their lack of phone calls as evidence Mobility may be doing a good job.

“I don’t think I’ve had a single one since they took over,” City Administrator Fred Russell said.

There’s another change on the horizon for Augusta Public Transit: Plans to sell facilities at 1548 and 1568 Broad St. and 1529 Fenwick St.

Russell said the valuable property probably isn’t worth the cash-strapped city retaining it, and that long-term plans are to move the bus fleet, and eventually the entire fleet, to a joint Richmond County Board of Education maintenance facility on Mike Padgett Highway. The move won’t affect downtown riders, who will continue to board and change buses downtown, he said.

Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle said he was pleased with Mobility so far.

“I have not heard one complaint since they took over,” Guilfoyle said. “I see the buses hitting the bus stops with the schedule signs on them; the buses are clean and I have yet to hear from the Bus Riders Association,” he said.

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