Few turn out to offer input

Hundreds of people turned out at a public hearing in December when the city wanted to shut down Saturday bus lines, but not even a dozen came Tuesday to give input on how to make Augusta's transit system better.

But those who attended gave consulting firm Wilbur Smith Associates an earful, complaining of spotty service that shuts down too early in evenings, takes them far out of their way to switch buses, has them waiting in the rain with no shelters and puts them hours early or hours late for work.

Blind bus rider Gerald C. Powell complained bitterly of hardships for disabled people and several times became belligerent.

"This is a farce!" he said repeatedly, saying more people would have been at the meeting had there been more advance notice.

A Wilber Smith representative said newspaper ads ran weeks ago.

"How can I read the paper when I'm a blind individual?" Mr. Powell shot back.

The Columbia-based company is working on a five- to seven-year Transit Development Plan for Augusta Public Transit, with plans to improve the system within budget restraints and alternatives for expansion if the financial outlook improves. One goal appears to be hooking up with Columbia County Transit, something the suburban county hasn't been receptive to in the past.

Columbia County resident Royal DeAsis said Augusta needs a bus system that goes beyond the Savannah River and county lines. There's just one stop in his county, on Davis Road.

"You're not gonna' solve any problems if you just look at Richmond County," Mr. DeAsis said. "There's something called the CSRA."

Augusta Public Transit loses an estimated $4 million per year, and the Augusta Commission's decision to keep Saturday buses running has the city $1.4 million behind in efforts to spare the city a tax rate increase this year.

Despite this, commissioners have acknowledged that the city needs a viable public transit system, and they're hoping new state legislation will allow operations to be funded by another special-purpose sales tax.

"We have to get out of the mentality that public transportation is just for poor people," Mayor Pro Tem Alvin Mason said at a south Augusta Pride and Progress meeting last month. "If you go to Atlanta, there's a lot of rich folks riding MARTA, riding the bus."

Wilbur Smith is being paid $133,000 to develop the plan, with $13,300 coming from the city and the rest from federal and state grants.

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

NEXT MEETING

Consulting firm Wilber Smith Associates will hold a second meeting for public input today from 4 to 6 p.m. at Diamond Lakes Community Center off Windsor Spring Road. Comments can also be made by calling Augusta Public Transit at (706) 821-1816 or e-mailing Director Heyward Johnson at hjohnson@augustaga.gov.