For most of her four-plus years in office, Mayor Nancy Denson has been hamstrung by lackluster tax revenue, initiating few new programs while cutting others, most notably transit and recreation programs.
Now that the economy has been improving for some time, she has a little bit of breathing room—$4 million more than last year, to be exact. Most of that money is going toward health care, pensions, raises for Athens-Clarke County employees and staffing for SPLOST projects like the jail expansion, set for completion this fall. $293,000, though, will pay to run Athens Transit buses on Sundays from 8 a.m.–10 p.m. That’s assuming the commission approves it, which appears all but certain.
Denson is, by her own account, not a transit user, so she wasn’t even aware that buses did not run on Sunday until citizens brought it to her attention. (She didn’t mention him by name, but former opponent Tim Denson and his supporters’ Athens for Everyone organization have been campaigning for the service.) Once she found out, though, she said she started thinking about how car-less employees might have trouble getting to work on the Lord’s Day.
“I realized that life doesn’t stop on Saturday night,” she said. “It made total sense to me.”
At Denson’s urging, the commission voted to cut the last hour of bus service in 2012, ending it at 10 p.m. Because of low ridership, those buses cost $30 per passenger to run. Denson said she and Athens Transit Director Butch McDuffie are working on a set of metrics to determine whether Sunday buses are successful.
“If we don’t have ridership, we can’t justify it to the taxpayers, so I hope people use it,” she said.
Based on interviews with bus riders last week, the service won’t fall flat. “I’m all in favor of that,” said Michael Earls. “Any routes running on Sunday would be beneficial to me, because I don’t have a car right now.”
Like many international students, Maria Terraza, who is from Guatemala, doesn’t have a car, either. “I would use it to go grocery shopping on the Eastside, to go downtown to eat something and to go to mass downtown,” she said. “Right now, I ask for a ride to get to mass, or I take the [UGA] weekender, but that bus is not always that reliable.”
Matthew Clarke would ride the bus to church, too. “I would ride the bus to go to church, and a lot of Sundays I have the day off, so I could go shopping, too,” said Clarke, a construction worker. “A lot of times, people have to catch a ride with someone they know to get to church on Sundays.”
Those in favor of Sunday buses (or opposed, for that matter) will have at least three chances to give input to the Mayor and Commission: before work sessions at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 12 and Thursday, May 14 at the Dougherty Street government building, and at the Tuesday, May 19 agenda-setting meeting at 7 p.m. at City Hall. A third work session may be held Thursday, May 21 but probably won’t be needed. The vote on the budget is scheduled for June 2. If you wait until the last minute to comment, though, it may be too late to change anyone’s mind.
Evelyn Andrews contributed reporting.
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