Riders reject public transit plan

After two hours of being berated, Augusta Public Transit Director Heyward Johnson said there's a good chance the 215 people who turned out at a public hearing Thursday put the brakes on his plan to raise bus fares and cut Saturday service.

There hasn't been a rate increase since 2001, and that's because whenever he proposes one, residents speak out and Augusta Commissioners reject it.

"It can have an effect on them as to how they vote," Mr. Johnson said.

With commissioners Jerry Brigham, J.R. Hatney and Alvin Mason listening, about a quarter of the people in attendance at the May Park Community Center gym took to the microphone and blasted what they said is already paltry bus service for a city Augusta's size. They said the proposed changes would punish the working poor, the disabled and people on fixed incomes during the depths of a national recession.

Catherine Anderson held up her monthly pass card, which under the plan would go from $50 to $55.

"The bus doesn't run on holidays, it doesn't run on Sundays," she said. "So it's a rip-off already."

Many of those who spoke said that without Saturday service they won't be able to get to work and could lose their jobs.

"If you cut the Saturday service off, you're cutting off my livelihood," Lisa Greer said.

Mr. Johnson proposes to raise fares from $1 to $1.50 and eliminate transfers, meaning riders would have to pay $1.50 every time they switch buses. He said he's trying to compensate for $1.5 million being cut from next year's budget.

Without the changes, the $1.5 million hole will have to be plugged some other way, City Administrator Fred Russell said. Under state law, special-purpose penny sales tax funds can be used to buy more buses, but not to staff or fuel them, he said. Augusta Public Transit loses an estimated $4 million per year.

Thursday's meeting was required by federal law, with speakers allowed to vent, but without officials answering questions. Mr. Johnson said comments would be compiled by a stenographer and given to commissioners.

The rate increases would raise fares further for disabled riders, who can't purchase monthly passes. Deborah Ivins, disabled from two car wrecks and speaking while sitting in a motorized scooter, said she currently pays $5.40 for a round trip to her job at Medical College of Georgia, and under the proposed plan she would pay $12.

She can't go to church because there's no Sunday service, and if Saturday routes are cut, she won't be able to go grocery shopping or to the pharmacy because she works until 5:30 p.m. on weekdays and most bus routes end around 7 p.m., she said.

"What I'm saying is, where's the planning in this?" Ms. Ivins said. "I would strongly urge you to put the priority on growing the system instead of cutting it."

Several speakers suggested public transit create a citizens advisory board to come up with ways to improve the system.

"I think if you provide a better service, you will have more ridership," said Elizabeth Bennett, who recently moved to Augusta from Philadelphia.

Mr. Hatney told the crowd that public transit's 2009 budget hasn't been decided yet, and he said he'll oppose Mr. Johnson's plan.

"There's no way," he said, "with this cry that I've heard and the pain I'm feeling, that I could support any of this."

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.

PROPOSED BUS CHANGES

Augusta Public Transit Director Heyward Johnson is proposing the following changes to make up for a $1.5 million budget cut next year:

- Elimination of Saturday service

- Increase fares from $1 to $1.50

- Elimination of transfers

- Increase monthly passes from $50 to $55

- Increase various fares for disabled riders from $2 to $3, $2.70 to $6 and $4.70 to $9.

Source: Augusta Public Transit