City DopeNews

Athens Has the Fourth-Busiest Transit System in the U.S. Why Doesn’t It Work Better?

Athens has a plethora of transportation options, but they don’t all seem to fit together.

Campus Transit ferries more than 10 million University of Georgia students and employees per year. For UGA and non-UGA people alike, there’s Athens Transit, which carries nearly two million riders per year and reaches 80 percent of the city’s population who live within a quarter-mile of a bus stop. Student apartment complexes run their own shuttles, or you can take a taxi (although the problems with Athens taxis are a whole other column). The sick and elderly have access to vans of their own for shopping or doctor’s appointments. The car-sharing service Uber is rumored to be making a foray into Athens, too.

All in all, the system is the fourth-most used in the country. The average Athenian boards a bus 99 times a year, according to the National Transit Database, a figure that ranks behind only New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. and is the highest among the many college towns that fill out the top tiers, like Champaign, IL, and Gainesville, FL. Consider Athens Transit alone, and we’d still be 109th out of 290 cities that receive federal funding for mass transit.

But there are challenges. UGA—which funds its own free transit system and subsidizes Athens Transit through student fees—is drawing tens of thousands of paying passengers away from Athens Transit with its Health Sciences Campus route. Apartment shuttles are competition, too. Athens has far fewer options for funding transit, and pumps less money into the system, than other communities.

Athens Transit Director Butch McDuffie recently compared Athens to five other medium-sized college towns: Lexington, KY, Knoxville, TN, Tallahassee, FL, Baton Rouge, LA, and Tuscaloosa, AL. All but Baton Rouge had fewer riders per hour. All but Tuscaloosa spent more per mile. All of them, period, spent more per passenger. That means we have a very efficient system.

Athens Transit relies on, roughly, one-third federal funding, one-third local taxes and one-third farebox revenue, about $6 million total. Other systems, though, take advantage of dedicated sales taxes, car licensing fees, dedicated property taxes and fuel taxes. For example, Knoxville—which is in Tennessee, the only state that spends less per capita on transportation than Georgia—gets $2 million annually from the state. Georgia is one of six states that does not fund transit at all.

“Many of these communities have other means of funding their services,” McDuffie told ACC commissioners at a work session Tuesday, Aug. 12. “We don’t have those options here.” Commissioner Kelly Girtz wondered, since we spend our dollars so efficiently, what could we do with additional funding?

Another challenge is that the people who need transit the most—those who don’t have a car to get to work—are sometimes the hardest to serve. Transit thrives on density, and the densest populations are student apartment complexes. The route that serves Riverbend Parkway has 250,000 riders a year, five times the route that serves low-income (and low-density) communities in East Athens, McDuffie said. And major industrial employers like Caterpillar draw in workers from multiple counties—something that especially concerns Commissioner Jerry NeSmith, who represents Atlanta Highway and urged McDuffie to consider regional transit or more park-and-ride lots.

Sparked by a Flagpole cover story on these issues in November, citizens have been clamoring to expand Athens Transit and reduce the cost, following the example of college towns like Clemson, SC, which has a unified city-campus system that’s free to all. Tim Denson picked up the ball and ran with it during his mayoral campaign. Mayor Nancy Denson has resisted the idea, but enough commissioners were sympathetic that ACC is embarking on a $200,000 transit study—and everything is on the table. But the consultant who’ll do the study hasn’t even been hired yet, and it won’t be finished until January 2016. That’s a long way off, so keep the heat on the commission to see it through.

Route Changes: McDuffie also announced a couple of minor route changes that took effect Monday, Aug. 18, so be aware. The No. 24 bus is running to the new Kroger on Highway 29 but not Fourth Street anymore because of the added time. The No. 3 bus is serving Fourth Street but no longer stops on Old Hull Road. The No. 20 bus has stopped serving Abbey West apartments on West Broad Street, because the complex is just the latest to start a private shuttle service.

Downtown Master Plan: It has finally made it to the Mayor and Commission. UGA College of Environment and Design professor Jack Crowley presented the plan at a work session Aug. 12. (Lots of background here.)

At Commissioner Kelly Girtz’s urging, Mayor Nancy Denson said she will appoint an implementation committee to, specifically, look at ways to pay for the plan. Amenities like parks and greenways aren’t cheap. Options include a tax allocation district, which would direct revenue from new developments toward downtown improvements; leasing publicly owned land to developers; and the next round of SPLOST projects, which will start around 2020.

Audit Plan: Commissioners apparently have abandoned plans to have newly hired Auditor Steve Martin look into the widely criticized Leisure Services Department, which has come under fire from everyone, from artists to youth football coaches, in recent months. The work plan the commission is scheduled to discuss at its Thursday, Aug. 21 meeting includes examining how county officials interact with the public on development issues (as we keep hearing, Athens is “anti-business” because we have rules and expect people to follow them) and the various citizen boards and authorities the commission appoints (because ACC rarely listens to them anyway, so why bother). 

Health Care Hurdles: File under, “cutting off your nose to spite your face.” Because Obamacare is the work of the devil, the state legislature passed a law last spring forbidding any state agency from promoting or implementing it. As a result, UGA cannot apply to renew a federal grant for “navigators” who help people sign up for insurance through the Affordable Care Act, and the navigator program ended on Aug. 15. But you can still call the national help line at 1-800-318-2596 or speak to one of the navigators at the Athens Neighborhood Health Center.