C-Tran reaches end of the line

Clayton County's C-Tran bus system, scheduled for shutdown this week, may be a government service. It may be one that supplies 2.1 million rides a year. But it's hard to find any part of government that believes it should be their job.

The county commissioners who voted 4-1 to shut it down say paying to run it should be the state's job.

The state says it's the county's.

Caught in the middle are the passengers, 65 percent of whom say they have no access to a car. Interviews with bus passengers this month showed a section of the metro population that faces life-changing consequences from loss of transportation. They called it "a tragedy. They called it "crazy." Some were spending big sums to break leases and move near MARTA. Some expected to lose their jobs. Others conceded that they simply were at a loss as to what to do.

Budgets across the state and nation are forcing hard choices. While the demise of C-Tran is extreme, it brings into focus a long-simmering tension over how the government should fund transportation and what kind.

"It’s a debate going on all across the country," said William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association. "I wish I could tell you it's one only Georgia’s wrestling with."

Clayton County pulled the plug on its bus system in spite of the fact that local transit has traditionally been led by local government. In Georgia, 127 counties and towns run some form of transit, from big-city trains down to small-town on-call shuttles, according to the state Department of Transportation.  Special transit for the handicapped and medical visits might survive, but come Thursday Clayton will be the only one of metropolitan Atlanta's five core counties without any regular local transit.

A bill that passed the state House Friday 142-14 would allow Clayton to join MARTA. But Clayton County commission Vice Chairman Wole Ralph, who voted to cancel the service, said he had "a lot of concerns," including that Clayton funding might bail out cash-strapped MARTA. It would require both a county referendum and a vote of the commission, according to MARTA's general counsel.

For its part, the state is reluctant to supplement local budgets for operating transit, unlike most of its peer states with major systems like MARTA. Some neighbors with smaller systems fund operations. The Charlotte Area Transit System receives state funds for operations, budgeted at $13 million next year, and a local sales tax dedicated to mass transit, according to Charlotte's system.

Yet there is an exception to the state's hard-line philosophy on operating transit: Georgia taxpayers, including C-Tran passengers, are helping fund a state-run Xpress bus service for suburbanites' long-haul commutes.

As C-Tran's shutdown approaches, accusations have flown. In Clayton, the lone dissenter in the county's vote, commission Chairman Eldrin Bell, said he believed his fellow commissioners intended to rid Clayton County of its poor. Ralph vehemently denied the accusation and has accused Bell of pandering for political advantage.

With $6.6 million in county funds budgeted for C-Tran and a $19-million budget shortfall expected overall, the county simply could not afford the subsidy, Ralph said. A special Clayton County tax that has dedicated $200 million in the last five years to roads and bridges fulfilled a more fundamental county duty than transit, he said.

"Counties are chartered to provide certain basic services; we have to provide them, by virtue of the constitution," Ralph explained.

Indeed, the Georgia constitution lists road construction and maintenance as something a county can provide.

It also lists public transportation.

The state has been on the firing line too. Georgia's major source of state transportation funding is its gas tax, which can only be spent on roads and bridges, not mass transit. By state law, special taxes like Clayton's can fund a re-paving but not transit operations.

While the state does give grants to transit agencies for capital projects and was instrumental in starting up C-Tran in 2001, it has been reluctant to spend other state money on running transit day-to-day.  Measures in the Legislature for regional funding of mass transit are encountering obstacles.

Todd Long, Georgia DOT's planning director, explained that the state doesn't help pay for operations because "all successful transit systems in the country tend to be driven by local desires and local goals." Gov. Sonny Perdue said earlier this year he did not know of anything the state could do to save C-Tran.

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However, the state is driving a massive expansion of the Xpress bus system for more affluent suburban commuters. Xpress passengers almost all own cars and are likely to lessen road congestion when they choose the bus. For them transit is a matter of choice, not economic survival. Where 60 percent of C-Tran riders said their total household income was less than $25,000 a year, 49 percent of Xpress bus riders reported a household income of $75,000 or more, according to ridership surveys.

The Xpress system will incur a deficit of its own soon, but for the moment the state is paying $28 million toward a $121-million expansion that will also draw on federal funds. The state is also subsidizing $478,000 toward operating funds for Xpress, a figure expected to rise to $1.6 million next year, according to the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA), which runs the system. Fare collections ($5 round trip) and federal and county funds pay the rest.

The contrast between GRTA and C-Tran irks Marcel Fletcher.

"That's wrong," Fletcher said recently, sitting in the back row of a C-Tran bus before dawn. "Our tax dollars aren't helping the people who need it. It's helping people who are already established."

In the best case, C-Tran's shutdown will separate Fletcher’s family, he says.

Fletcher, 23, lives with his girlfriend, a baby son and his girlfriend's father in Jonesboro. They have no car. Fletcher commutes more than two hours each way on C-Tran, MARTA, sidewalks and even roadsides without sidewalks. When C-Tran disappears, he said he will no longer be able to get from their bare two-bedroom apartment to his job in Atlanta.

“I don’t know, honestly, what I’m going to do,” he said. “I may have to stay at my mom’s house just to make it to work. I don’t know how that’s going to work because I got my family down here.”

The alternative, he added, is to forfeit his $9.25-an-hour job as a manager at a meat processing plant. His girlfriend must stay within walking distance to the trade school she attends.

In contrast, like most Xpress bus riders, Everett Bennett's family has more than one car.

At each day's end he hops off his state-subsidized Xpress bus ride from Sandy Springs to Cumming, walks to his pickup in the park-and-ride lot and drives eight miles to the three-level house that he and his wife built overlooking Lake Lanier. Bennett, who has a "Fair Tax" sign in the back window of his pickup, believes all government programs should look for efficiencies to make up the funding gap from ticket sales.

Still, he said recently, he wouldn't begrudge C-Tran or MARTA some state money for operations if necessary.

"I don't understand why the state isn't already running it," he said.

The fact that Bennett owns a truck and would use it on Ga. 400, adding to congestion, makes the state want to provide Xpress bus service for him. Xpress buses work around standard office hours and generally serve suburban riders who can get to a park-and-ride lot for a haul several miles away, like downtown. Commuters throughout the region, including Clayton County, took 2.3 million trips on Xpress buses last year.

GRTA director Dick Anderson said that decreased congestion would attract more employers, lifting all boats.

Millar, the American Transit Association president, said that every dollar invested in public transit generates about four dollars in the economy.

Funding public transit allows people who can't drive, including the elderly and those too poor to own car, to participate in society, he added.

"It’s really a basic question of values," he said.

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