Transit upgrades would cost city extra $2.15 million

Plans to improve and expand Augusta Public Transit could cost taxpayers more than $2 million, city commissioners learned at a Monday committee meeting.

Commissioners also forwarded the issue of characterizing downtown Augusta as a “slum” to next week’s full commission meeting, citing ongoing work on the proposal that might make it more agreeable to constituents.

Tim Lett, the vice president of McDonald Transit, divided the company’s recommendations to improve and grow the city’s bus and paratransit service into three phases, beginning with increasing the frequency of bus stops to no fewer than once an hour and eliminating unused segments of routes and some difficult turns to save time.

A revised “crosstown” route takes in the Social Security office at Augusta Exchange, Doctors Hospital, Augusta Mall and the Deans Bridge Road Wal-Mart at an extra annual charge of about $14,000, he said, while increasing frequency of the Augusta Mall route, which runs from Broad Street to the mall, to every half-hour and adding an extra bus to ensure on-time stops will double its annual cost to $881,857.

Altogether, Phase 1’s route and stop tweaks will cost an additional $583,535, bringing the city’s annual expense to run bus routes from $3 million to $3.6 million, Lett said.

Phase 2 of the plan involves adding a Saturday flea market route, an hourly Fort Gordon Route and a new south Augusta route, to travel Deans Bridge Road, Meadowbrook Drive, Windsor Spring Road and Tobacco Road. Including paratransit costs, the additions of Phase 2 total $1.1 million annually, he said.

Phase 3 is extending bus service hours, a common rider complaint. The increase will cost $439,319.

The three phases, if implemented, would cost $2.15 million more than the $3.02 million the city now pays.

Commissioners are budgeting for next year, and a draft budget presented by City Administrator Fred Russell includes an $8.5 million shortfall he’s looking to the commission to determine how to fill.

“What is it going to take from us to make this happen?” Commissioner Bill Lockett asked of the transit improvements.

“Six votes and a funding stream,” Russell replied.

The city has some funds available from the Transportation Investment Act, or TSPLOST. The list of projects approved by a regional committee included $7.5 million over 10 years for Augusta Public Transit, “an avenue that we could look to,” Russell said.

Russell said he wanted commission consensus on funding the upgrades, which don’t include a fare increase, before moving forward.

Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle said he liked the plan’s elimination of unused stops and would consider implementing a phase if funding is available.

In another matter, the city’s finance committee forwarded authorization of a controversial “slum” designation to next week’s full commission meeting. Commissioner Donnie Smith, who made the motion to refer the vote, said Augusta Regional Collaboration Project Director Matt Kwatinetz was in Atlanta working with contracted bond counsel on the project.

Russell, who initially proposed using Georgia laws that allow government agencies to issue tax-exempt bonds to benefit “slum” areas as a way to finance $26.5 million of $40 million in ongoing renovations at the downtown government complex, said Kwatinetz and others were working toward a proposal that will be revealed next week.

The proposal will include language “not quite as offensive,” change the boundaries of the proposed “slum” and potentially benefit another downtown project in the works. He wouldn’t elaborate on the other project, although he said at a previous meeting a business wants to bring several hundred jobs to a downtown location if conditions are right.

“Next Tuesday we should know whether or not that is a viable option,” Russell said.

In other business Monday, commission committees:

• Unanimously approved revoking the alcohol, business and dance hall licenses held by the nightclub Skittlez for allowing – according to the sheriff’s office – a minor inside. Skittlez, a black gay club on Gordon Highway, was already on probation with the city for an incident earlier this year involving another minor and an adult male stripper

• Authorized Marriott operator Augusta Riverfront LLC to install a shared chiller plant to serve Augusta Convention Center, Augusta Conference Center and the Marriott on city property. Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle said he approved the measure because it costs the city nothing and hotel and city utilities are to be metered separately.

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