Originally created 07/31/00

City revamps bus shelters



Millions of cumulative hours have been spent waiting at them.

Rock groups have devoted entire songs to them.

And 85 of Augusta's are being revamped this summer.

The bus stop. It's a metropolitan tradition that has persevered locally for more than 60 years.

And as bus ridership increases, so does the demand for bigger, better bus shelters.

"I've been riding for a long time, a long time," Patricia Mason said while waiting for a bus at a recently revamped Washington Road shelter. "I thought I noticed something different here. It looks nice - nicer."

About 30 updated shelters have been completed to date, mostly along Wrightsboro and Washington roads. The structures still are constructed with aluminum, but they are about 5 feet longer and about 1´ feet wider. Benches in the new shelters are divided and can seat three people, and the ad panels have a more modern look.

"It's like going from a Volkswagen to a Mercedes," said Jeff White, general manager and vice president of Lamar Advertising, the firm that manages the city's shelters.

A domed roof has replaced a flat top, and the new shelters have a lighted interior, which officials say should provide a safer environment for nighttime riders.

There are more than 500 bus stops across the city, and with fewer than 20 percent sporting protective structures, transit officials receive frequent requests for additional ones.

But even with recent improvements, transportation officials admit the bus system is not nearly as glamorous as it is often portrayed in movies and love songs. Public transit, they say, is seen largely as a social service.

"Transportation has come up as one of the biggest barriers to someone getting as good a job as they can," said David Jenkins, a planning and work force development representative with the Georgia Department of Industry, Trade and Tourism. "There are so many different ways communities are addressing that, and public transportation buses are one way .ƒ.ƒ. (to) make an affordable resource ready to the lower-wage scale."

Many of those who ride transit buses day in and day out are reluctant to divulge their names.

"I just get on the bus and go about my business," a lifetime Augusta resident and McDonald's employee said while waiting on a bus to take him home. "I go back and forth to work, back and forth to wherever I need to go."

Glamorous it isn't.

"You get rained on," he said. "There are cigarette butts all over the ground."

But public transit is deeply rooted in the blue-collar, working American's legacy, dating as far back as 1860 in Augusta, when a horse-drawn trolley carried passengers between downtown and the Hill area.

Those who utilize Augusta's public transportation system today make up a distinct minority, the transit department reports, and changes in bus routes, schedules and fares go largely unnoticed by the population at large.

"We periodically look at ridership and tweak things accordingly," said Heyward Johnson, director of public transit.

Between 1996 and 1999, Augusta Public Transit has consistently given about 1.2 million rides annually at 75 cents per ride and 35 cents per transfer, he said.

Ridership indicates little about the actual number of passengers, however. The rates are calculated by the number of times a person steps foot inside a bus, not the number of trips that are made. For example, a single person traveling round trip from south Richmond County to Augusta Exchange shopping center with two transfers would be counted six times.

The city spends about $2 million a year to fund public transit.

And last year, the city's contract with Lamar Advertising brought in $16,391 in revenue, accounting records show. When the transit department renewed its contract with the ad firm this year, the city's revenue share was increased from 8 percent to 10 percent.

"One of the things we're trying to work with Lamar on is to increase the number of shelters," Mr. Johnson said. "We've gone through the first and second generation of shelters, and now we're into the third generation."

Time line

The history of public transportation in Augusta goes back nearly 140 years, evolving and changing over time:

1860: A horse-drawn trolley carries passengers from downtown to the Hill area at the Bon Air Hotel. A building at 15th and Greene streets is used as stables for the horses.

1890: Electric trolley lines begin operation, serving the downtown and hill areas within the former Augusta city limits.

1910: An electric trolley line is installed, connecting Augusta to Aiken.

1928: Georgia Power Co. acquires the trolley operation in Augusta and begins a major expansion.

1937: Streetcars are deemed inefficient, and the public transportation system is converted to buses.

1943: World War II brings bus usage to an all-time high in Augusta, with a fleet of more than 50 buses transporting more than half of the area's population.

1947: The Securities and Exchange Commission orders Georgia Power to divest itself from gas and transportation properties.

1949: The Augusta Coach Co. is formed to acquire the bus company from Georgia Power.

1953: The unionized employees of Augusta Coach organize a strike that results in the dynamiting of several buses. All employees are fired.

1973: Augusta Public Transit is established when the city government takes over for Augusta Coach in order to end steady deterioration of services and equipment.

1984: The city takes over operations from the Fort Gordon Bus Co., expanding service into south Richmond County.

1985: The city purchases 27 buses for the transportation fleet.

1989: The city acquires nine 1988 model buses.

1990: The first bus shelters are built with federal dollars and are modeled after shelters on the campus of the Medical College of Georgia.

1993: Aluminum bus shelters start to appear around the city bearing advertisements.

2000: State-of-the-art bus shelters replace 85 existing shelters and incorporate longer, wider seats. The new shelters also are illuminated.

Reach Heidi Coryell at (706) 823-3215.