A federal grant has allowed Athens Transit to provide fare-free service for most of the pandemic, but as that money runs out, Athens-Clarke County commissioners face a decision on how to replace it, especially now that ridership has plummeted and may not recover for years.
Before the pandemic, bus ridership had already declined 20%, from about 1.5 or 1.6 million a year to a little over 1.2 million between fiscal 2018 (the second half of 2017 and first half of 2018) and FY2019. “UGA folks are riding less,” Athens Transit Director Butch McDuffie told commissioners at last week’s work session. He pointed to three factors: UGA running its own buses to the Health Sciences Campus and the new veterinary building on College Station Road, apartment complex shuttles and the influx of student apartments downtown.
At this point last year, between July 1 and the end of October, Athens Transit had provided 500,000 rides, roughly evenly split between UGA and non-UGA riders. For those four months this year, people have taken just 188,000 bus trips, including only 10,000 who are affiliated with UGA. (Anecdotally, many professors say that few students opted to attend classes in person that they could watch online.)
“That’s a very big issue for us, because looking at that number, their numbers are down 97% for the year, and our overall numbers are down 60% for the year,” McDuffie said. “What we’re seeing right now is, really only transit-dependent riders are using the bus these days.” People with other options, like driving, he said, are using them: “In my opinion, they’re afraid to ride the bus with other folks because they’re afraid of exposure to COVID-19.” And he added that ridership may not fully recover for another two years.
The drop in ridership and the decision to go fare-free in March, have cost Athens Transit $700,000 in farebox revenue, McDuffie said. That money has been replaced temporarily by federal CARES Act funding, which is covering Athens Transit’s entire $5.9 million budget for the current fiscal year. Athens Transit also saved money by going to a holiday schedule—with 16 hourly routes rather than 24, ending at 7 p.m. instead of 10 p.m.—when UGA’s in-person classes ended last month.
In addition, ACC may be receiving less money from UGA in the future. The county and university apply jointly for federal transit funds, allowing ACC to draw down more dollars by combining ridership numbers, and those funds partially offset ACC’s cost for student, faculty and staff rides. But if no one from UGA is riding, ACC won’t get any additional cash from UGA on top of the federal grant, and UGA might not have much incentive to help ACC apply.
Despite the financial challenges, McDuffie advocated for transit to remain fare-free, at least through mid-2022. The remaining riders depend on the bus, he said. “What happens when a single mother with two children who’s economically challenged is putting $40, $60, $80 a month into the farebox?” he asked. “If she’s not doing that, she’s putting the money back into the local economy.”
Keeping buses fare-free in the future, though, will require the commission to replace that $700,000 in lost farebox revenue with general-fund dollars from taxes. Staying on a limited schedule could cut that figure to $300,000. “People aren’t doing the same things,” McDuffie said. “They’re not going out and traveling the way they used to. It’s not a good use of taxpayer dollars to run buses that are predominantly empty. However, those handful of passengers who are riding per hour, I’m very sure they need those buses for a very specific reason.”
Commissioner Tim Denson, a long-time advocate for fare-free transit, said he’s not excited about the idea of reduced service, but he’d be willing to live with it if that meant keeping the bus free throughout the pandemic. With a COVID-19 vaccine not expected to be widely available until UGA’s spring semester ends, “It makes sense to run on that reduced schedule for the foreseeable future,” Commissioner Melissa Link said.
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