C-TRAN ridership growing, but county paying more

By Justin Boron

C-TRAN bus service is expected to have added 350,000 more riders by the end of this year, putting its total ridership in the five years it will have been running at more than 5 million.

Jim Ritchey, the deputy director of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, attributed the increase to implementing more efficient routes.

”By small changes, we were able to see a substantial increase in ridership,“ he said.

GRTA has a contract to run the Clayton County bus service until April of 2006. Earlier this year, the transportation management group made several changes to existing routes to eliminate transfers, relieve overcrowding, and reduce route times.

With a total of 1.78 million riders expected for the end of this fiscal year, C-TRAN has 24 vans and buses. But Ritchey said that won't be sufficient as ridership continues to increase.

”With the ridership, that will not be enough equipment for your service in the future,“ he said.

Although ridership has grown over C-TRAN's four years of existence, it has done little to reduce the operating deficit. For three out of the four years of its existence, the fare box has covered 34 percent of the cost. In the fiscal year ending 2004, it dropped to 31 percent.

Ritchey said the average in U.S. is around 20 percent. MARTA, he said, is about 30 percent.

In the past, federal grant money has covered much of the operating gap. But those grant funds have gradually shrunk. This year, Clayton County had to budget $3.5 million to operate the system whereas in 2004, it only had to fork out $400,000. Next year, GRTA projects the county's contribution to increase to $5.4 million.

At Board of Commissioners' Tuesday work session, Commissioner Charley Griswell asked about the possibility of a fare increase.

But Ritchey said that wasn't being advocated yet.

Another expense that could have hurt the bus system is the expected rise in the cost of natural gas this winter.

C-TRAN buses operate on compressed natural gas, which is a clean-burning fuel that reduces vehicle emissions, greenhouse gases, and toxins.

Luckily, Ritchey said what the system pays for its natural gas has been locked until next year.

He said locking the prices in likely saved the system hundreds of thousands of dollars.