Study finds faults in Augusta's transit system

System ranks third-worst in 100 metro areas

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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.

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Passengers get off the bus at a transfer station near the Kmart on Gordon Hwy, Thursday, May 19, 2011, in Augusta, Ga.  Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff
Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff
Passengers get off the bus at a transfer station near the Kmart on Gordon Hwy, Thursday, May 19, 2011, in Augusta, Ga.

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

Comments (12) Add comment
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Just My Opinion
5931
Points
Just My Opinion 05/23/11 - 04:52 am
0
0
In my very limited knowledge

In my very limited knowledge of this subject, it seems to me that the obvious reason many people don't use this service is because of the amount of time that can be lost dependent on the bus arrival and departure. I mean, look at this poor lady at the first of this story...she leaves her house 2 hours before she's to get to work, and it's only a 10 minute car ride??? First off, good for her for being so dedicated! Shoot, she could walk to work in that 2 hours! If riders can't even depend on the busses to be there when they're supposed to be, then I don't blame people for not using them.

draksig
167
Points
draksig 05/23/11 - 06:24 am
0
0
I looked through the Augusta

I looked through the Augusta bus schedule a couple of months ago and came to the same conclusion. The routes are poorly planned and each apparently only has one bus. They need to check out the public transit systems of nearby cities like Savannah.

southern2
6775
Points
southern2 05/23/11 - 07:05 am
0
0
Does anyone know what's up

Does anyone know what's up with the fleet of 24 passenger vans running around Augusta usually with a single passenger. The peeled off decals indicate they are former Atlanta Airport shuttle vans. One comes to my neighborhood every week day to pick up a young lady and her baby and returns with them in the afternoon. Kind of like a private chauffeur. Maybe this is what Shalonda needs.

wondersnevercease
9218
Points
wondersnevercease 05/23/11 - 07:27 am
0
0
"transit-disadvantaged"?....y
Unpublished

"transit-disadvantaged"?....you mean have no car? The PC word police have struck again.

Emerydan
10
Points
Emerydan 05/23/11 - 11:35 am
0
0
There's one source for

There's one source for revenue that would not come out of of property taxes to help expand bus service, and that's the hotel-motel tax.. but Mr Bowles and several others decided that it was more important to tie up nearly all of that money for 30+ years for the money pit TEE Center. I believe a first class public transit system would be more attractive to businesses looking to locate to Augusta who need a reliable workforce who can reliable get to work on time. And with gas prices going through the roof, more of us may need to look at taking public transit. And btw, not everyone is physically capable of driving a car whether because of disability or advanced age, and economically the cost of owning and operating a motor vehicle is out of the reach for many people. That doe not mean they should not be able to function in our society and get to work.

wondersnevercease
9218
Points
wondersnevercease 05/23/11 - 12:31 pm
0
0
emerydan I agree... I have
Unpublished

emerydan I agree... I have traveled all over and even though they complain the Brits and the European Countries have made an art out of public transport.Get a rail pass and go!.......my comment about the transit-disadvantaged was tongue in cheek....just say disabled or wheeless...you need don't coin another un-needed phrase. ;=)

Emerydan
10
Points
Emerydan 05/23/11 - 01:57 pm
0
0
And we can really forget

And we can really forget about increasing tourism to Augusta if we are not committed to having a first rate transit system. Augusta should aspire to be at the top of the list, not the bottom in regards to transit. When I think of all the cities I have travelled to, the ones I have enjoyed visiting the most are the ones where I did not have to rent a car to get around. Efficient, easy to navigate public transit systems help promote tourism and new business. If we can throw over $75 million at a TEE Center, I think we could find a way for Augusta to have a decent transit system that we could be proud of.

onlysane1left
216
Points
onlysane1left 05/23/11 - 02:30 pm
0
0
To the folks who said that

To the folks who said that transit system needed changes, and when an independent study comes and says the same thing, I applaud your honesty. To the folks who said those people who asking for something for nothing: I believe you all are wrong; There is a problem, so instead stucking your head in the sand, maybe, you may want to listen to others!

Brad Owens
4749
Points
Brad Owens 05/23/11 - 03:06 pm
0
0
Emerdan, We can forget

Emerdan,

We can forget Augusta being a tourist destination period. I mean what do we have that someone in modern society would want to come and see?

We had a proposed water park but it was shot down. The river is free and should be developed, it is the best thing we got outrside the Augusta National.

If they gave me the $5,000,000.00 I am telling you that I could run ten times the routes and double destinations.

Wait and see wat happens now.

Brad

Emerydan
10
Points
Emerydan 05/23/11 - 04:05 pm
0
0
Brad, I agree with you about

Brad, I agree with you about Augusta never becoming a tourist destination, which is all the more reason why the TEE Center will be nothing but a big money pit. But cities the size of Augusta (whether they are tourist oriented or not) need to have adequate and reliable public transit systems. I see it as a basic service of any city over 100,000 people.. if we want it to function like a real city. But we spend millions on TEE Centers and talk of spending millions on ballparks when we have one of the worst public transit systems in the country. Yes the system is very mismanaged, but Mr Bowles wants to use privatization as a means to reduce public transit's budget rather than expand routes. I think that is misguided. Yes, perhaps a private entity can do a better job of managing the system, but if the cost savings won't go back into improving the system and expanding it, then I think this is just a revolving door to nowhere.

Brad Owens
4749
Points
Brad Owens 05/23/11 - 04:20 pm
0
0
98 out of 100? Could they

98 out of 100? Could they have at least NAMED those two so we could have a couple of places to laught attoo?

Where is countryman with all his positive vibes to make this into a good news story?

Brad Owens
4749
Points
Brad Owens 05/23/11 - 04:36 pm
0
0
Emerydan, Once I put forward

Emerydan,

Once I put forward a proposal to both the DDA and the Ft. Gordon Garrison Commander that we have an express bus line from Ft. Gordon to Broad Street.

I lined up sponsors from downtown businesses and talked to the Public Transit, Mr. Johnson, who said he would donate four older larger buses that were set to be auctioned to our effort, but it had to be through the DDA.

I met with the Ft. Gordon staff and had it all set, they were willing to DONATE the fuel out of MWR funds if we maintained the buses and kept a steady service free to the soldiers.

The deal was for Fri-Sun service every hour on the hour. We planned to have a bus come and pick-up, drop off at three locations; The Fort, Broad Street, and Robert C. Daniels at the neon palace movie house.

The other part of the deal was with MCG and it was to run lunch shuttles using the buses every 15 mins from the center of MCG to 10th and Broad in loops during the week Mon-Fri 11:00-14:00hrs

That would have taken care of the other half of operating costs and it would have allowed the businesses downtown to have increased foot traffic at key times. Soldiers have cash to burn and the MCG lunch crowd would eat downtown out of food if they had reliable shuttles (express from stop to stop) leaving every 15 mins.

Another one of my ideas everyone downtown in power pooped on. They said I would be bringing the "wrong type" of people downtown. I thought 'Yeah, that disposable income crowd REALLY is bad huh?'

Oh well, I was one man against the world.

Brad

HR71C10
1
Points
HR71C10 05/23/11 - 04:50 pm
0
0
Brad, your last post is

Brad, your last post is exactly what I'm talking about. We have people leading us that have no idea what they are doing. You presented a plan, had the backing to do it, and still you were told no. Utter senselessness. Nevermind it was a good idea, saved them money, and would expand service. Must have been because it wasn't their idea.....

happychimer
18811
Points
happychimer 05/23/11 - 07:20 pm
0
0
Back in the 1970s a Fort

Back in the 1970s a
Fort Gordon bus went up Deansbridge Road to a bus stop on Broad Street.We lived a few houses from Deansbridge. Anyone could ride that bus to Broad St. My young son and I would ride the bus to Broad Street sometimes.It was an adventure to my son.

Brad Owens
4749
Points
Brad Owens 05/24/11 - 04:59 am
0
0
You would be surprised who

You would be surprised who was opposed to it. Certian Arts groups that get giverment monies were opposed to it.

The DDA created every reason NOT to do it, even though it was sponsored.

The funny thing was, they stole the MCG idea and tried to get a side deal going.

I don't care who gets the credit, but the funny part is, MCG students were the 'type' of people they wanted downtown and they acted like the soldiers were little more than trash to them.

A certain out of date clothing store's owner told me herself that I was not downtown in the 70s when all the soldiers were down here causing "trouble." As if today's soldiers are anything like the draft Army of the Vietnam Era.

Funny how the military was ready to support us and so was MCG, but the little Cabal that controls the DDA said no. I guess it was because it was MY idea. "Can't let anything 'Brad' brings to the table happen, he might get some clout!" was the mantra. Oh well, seems they misunderstood my motivations, or they were afraid I would expose theirs.

Brad

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