Riding the Clayton bus, destination humanity

If you want to know how MARTA is being received by Clayton County business, you can get an earful from Paul Stahnke.

Since MARTA buses began rolling early this year, the manager of Sonny’s BBQ on Mount Zion Road in Jonesboro has had access to a broader — and much improved — labor pool.

“It’s easier for employees to get here, and it’s bringing in a better quality employee for me to be able to hire,” he says.

A lot of restaurants depend on college students to fill part-time jobs, Stahnke says. But many college students don’t have cars. Without dependable transportation, they can’t reach jobs they could otherwise fill.

“I have Clayton State College around the corner from me, but it was too far for (students) to actually get here on their own,” he says. “With MARTA, they’re able to get here. Georgia State students are able to get here from Atlanta. They don’t have to worry about a car. They don’t have to worry about breaking down. They don’t have to worry about somebody forgetting to pick them up. The bus is always there.”

When MARTA inaugurated its Clayton service in March — residents approved a sales-tax hike in November to join the transit system — Stahnke began hiring from the classroom. He now has 11 students on his 52-member staff, all hired post-MARTA.

Similar stories probably exist. I recently rode the #196 bus, MARTA’s busiest Clayton route, from College Park transit station to Southlake Mall and back. Aside from the mall, here are just a few of the places that bus connects: West Clayton Elementary School. Riverdale Plaza. Riverdale Town Center and city hall. Riverdale Middle School. Wal-Mart (two locations). Southern Regional Medical Center. Tara Elementary School. And, of course, Sonny’s BBQ.

Seeing those activity centers and talking with riders, you get a clearer understanding of the need for robust, reliable public transportation in the metro area.

Shemeya Kilpatrick, 20 of Morrow, a student at Georgia Piedmont Technical College in Clarkston, was waiting for the bus to pull out of Southlake Mall one recent afternoon. Since her car was stolen recently, she takes the bus and train on a long commute to classes. “Without the bus, and without a car, it would be difficult to get a ride,” she says. “The bus is cheaper, too. It’s easier to get around and get to school.”

Tony Drake, 49, works at a restaurant at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Without the bus, he would have to “make other arrangements” to get to his job. The bus is a big help, he says, but improvements are needed. Drake says the last bus leaving College Park at night needs to be later, to accommodate workers getting off late shifts. (MARTA’s schedule has the last bus leaving at 11:55 p.m.) After the 53-minute ride to Southlake Mall, he walks four miles home, Drake says.

The #196 also gets uncomfortably crowded at times. “This bus gets so packed, like sardines. It’s dangerous,” Drake says, as we leave Southlake Mall heading north. “By the time we get to College Park,” he predicts, “it will be standing room only.” He is soon proven right, and it’s an early afternoon run. Rush hour will be worse.

Before MARTA, Kevin Stevenson, 62, a relief manager at Waffle House, scrambled to find transportation to work. “Before the bus got started,” he says, “I took gypsy taxis. Guys would take you to the train station for five dollars” — twice MARTA’s regular one-way fare.

After a few conversations like this, it’s no wonder Clayton’s ridership numbers are beating projections. According to the minutes of the Aug. 18 Clayton County Commission meeting, MARTA CEO Keith Parker told commissioners, “Ridership is extremely better than what was predicted. Route 191 averages over 500 riders daily. Route 193 averages 900 riders daily. And Route 196 averages close to 3,000 riders daily.”

Not everything has been seamless. The lack of bus-stop shelters, which can cost $20,000 to erect, made recent headlines. Many stops don’t have trash cans. That was a concern for commissioner Gail Hambrick, who mentioned it at the meeting.

Commissioner Sonna Gregory told Parker she was disappointed by the number of Clayton residents hired by MARTA. About 70 people were hired at a job fair,” Parker said, adding that the current job market was tough because Fulton and DeKalb counties, and the city of Atlanta, were “all hiring.”

Shelters, trash cans, SRO buses, hiring counts: Growing pains are the order of the day. But jobs and connectivity — lifelines for low-income citizens amid our car-catering commerce — that’s the bigger picture.

By the end of the year, MARTA will have nine bus routes in Clayton. And more stories to tell.

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