Riding for the last time, C-Tran customers stand in line to board the 503 to Riverdale on Wednesday, March 31, 2010 at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport. This was the last day that Clayton County would operate the C-Tran bus service.
Photo: Johnny Crawford / AJC File
Photo: Johnny Crawford / AJC File

Reviving Clayton bus service isn’t simple

By this time next month, Tashonie Davis will have resolved her commuting headaches — something Clayton County and metro Atlanta transportation experts have yet to do. The 25-year-old Morrow mom is leaving Clayton County and moving to Atlanta, to commute to her job in Clayton.

Confused?

Clayton is the only metro county without local public transportation since it killed its bus service, C-TRAN, three years ago because of its cost. For Davis and others without cars, getting to work, school or even the grocery store is a logistical nightmare.

“I’m from New York and it’s so much easier there being able to get around,” said Davis, who is moving at the end of the month to an Atlanta apartment near a MARTA station. “Clayton needs a better transportation system.”

County leaders agree on that. How soon it may come, however, is anyone’s guess. There is disagreement about how best to get public transit, most likely buses, rolling again.

A year after metro Atlantans voted down a massive regional transportation plan, Clayton shows what being without public transportation means in a car-dependent region. Seven percent of its residents do not own a car. DeKalb and Fulton have higher percentages, 9.4 and 11.8 percent respectively, but those residents have bus service and MARTA.

Four in 10 residents in neighboring Henry and Fayette counties own two or more vehicles. In Clayton, it’s three in 10.

“People here are desperate for transportation,”said Felicia Davis, Tashonie’s aunt. “Whoever would think of a suburban county with no transportation? Everybody else has transportation. On one hand, you’re screaming and yelling, telling the young person to become independent. But public transportation for entry-level and lower-income workers is nonexistent.”

C-Tran ferried residents to the airport, Southlake Mall and other parts of the county. Since Clayton officials pulled its plug in March 2010, Georgia Regional Transportation Authority Xpress bus service is the only public transit in Clayton. But it only carries people from designated park-and-ride spots in Jonesboro and Riverdale to downtown and midtown Atlanta. It doesn’t run within the county or take people to the airport, a route that locals say is sorely needed.

Clayton ended C-TRAN when the county was facing a $16 million deficit because of declining property values and tax revenues. C-Tran cost $10 million a year to operate, but took in about $2.5 million in fare revenue. Federal funds, which had earlier helped cover costs, had dwindled to nothing by the time the buses stopped.

Tashonie Davis’ day starts around 5:45 a.m. weekdays. Her aunt drives over from Forest Park, takes Davis’ four-year-old son to school, then rushes Davis to her $8-an-hour job as a security guard at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport by 7 a.m. Davis’ roommate, who also is without transportation, faces similar challenges getting to her job at the nearby McDonald’s.

Clayton’s leadership has changed, and some members of the previous administration were swept out of office in part because of transportation issues. Commission Chairman Jeff Turner and others say mass transit would connect Clayton residents to jobs and key points throughout the county and the southside, and attract more businesses and jobs.

“There’s been extensive dialogue regarding transportation,” said Riverdale Mayor Evelyn Winn-Dixon, who held a roundtable with the county’s seven mayors, legislative delegates, county commissioners and the heads of MARTA and GRTA. As president of the Clayton County Mayors Association, she also met with federal transportation officials from Washington and Atlanta. Her group is crafting a pro-public transit resolution to be presented to the county commission.

But it’s unclear when buses will roll again in Clayton.

“We’re absolutely interested in bringing public transit back to Clayton. We want to move expeditiously but cautiously. We want to make sure we do it right,” said Turner, who has met with state, regional and federal transportation authorities. “I don’t want to put a time frame on it.”

Clayton isn’t the only county to cut bus service when the economy nose-dived, nor is it the only one considering reviving it:

- Cobb County Transit ended two South Cobb routes and one in East Cobb in 2011 because of low ridership. The county is adding a pilot “Flexbus” services in the next few months to serve two of the areas hit by the cuts. The county also is studying a $1.1 billion bus-rapid transit project that would go from Kennesaw State University to downtown Atlanta.

- Gwinnett County Transit cut its service by 20 percent in 2008. It also cut Saturday service by four routes. Unlike Cobb, there’s no service expansion under consideration now.

Clayton leaders are considering a feasibility study to target areas of greatest need. The study also is necessary to get state and federal grants for transit, Turner said. He said it also would help figure out ways to lessen any potential tax burden on residents.

Clayton State University president Tim Hynes says a feasibility study would pinpoint “ways in which the transportation should take form.”

More than 700 Clayton State staff and students were using C-Tran when it ended. “We’d benefit greatly with the completion of a feasibility study that would advise us on routes,” said Hynes who is chairman of Clayton County Chamber of Commerce. “Any system would benefit to have frequent service between Clayton State, the airport and the Ft. McPherson MARTA station,” high-use stops for C-Tran, said Hynes. He indicated the university would be willing to do research for the feasibility study.

But an environmental group and a grassroots group say voters should decide their options, including whether to pay a 1-cent sales tax to join MARTA. They argue that the county would miss its chance to hold a binding referendum next year on the issue if it did a feasibility study.

“That is the best option because if they would pass a 1- percent sales tax that would result in $49 million a year,” said Brionte McCorkle, chapter program assistant for The Sierra Club’s Regional Action to Improve Livability or RAIL campaign. “That is more than enough to restore bus service and possibly even expand MARTA rail into the county.”

Felicia Davis says a feasibility study is just another delaying tactic. “They need to do a referendum. You don’t need a study. We’ve studied it to death. Just go and look up the average income in Clayton. It’s going to be lower than surrounding counties,” she said. “I’m a taxpayer and I know I would pay a little more. The county needs to do whatever it needs to do so these young families can survive. Public transportation is in high demand.”

One political observer says public transit may come down to how vocal the community gets over the issue.

“It’s going to have to be from public pressure to make this happen,” said Pat Pullar, a political consultant familiar with Clayton politics. “Unless the public puts pressure on the elected officials, nothing will get done because there’s really no money for it.”

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