By Joel Hall
As gas prices continue to soar, more and more people in Clayton County are turning toward public transportation, according Dr. Beverly Scott, general manager and CEO of the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), which now operates C-TRAN, the county's bus system.
With the passage of a recent bill allowing registered gun owners to bring their guns into restaurants and onto public transportation, new safety concerns will also need to be addressed, according to public safety officials.
In a Board of Commissioners work session last week, Scott told commissioners they need to make a serious investment in C-TRAN, in order to secure the economic vitality of the county and to prevent further gridlock.
"We are bursting by the seems," in terms of ridership, said Scott. She noted, in the last fiscal year, C-TRAN ridership had risen by 200,000 people, equaling roughly 2 million rides per year. "People are absolutely caught up by rising gas prices and are in great need of public transportation," said Scott.
Scott said C-TRAN lacks a "fully functional facility" and that a lack of buses is causing longer wait times and giving buses a shorter running-life. She said the 503 and 504 routes, which service the Mt. Zion corridor and the Highway 85/Flint River corridors, respectively, operate with only "standing room" at most times of the day.
In a recent survey of C-TRAN riders, 61 percent of trips were work-related, according to Scott. She said C-TRAN will serve as an "enabler" that "will allow people to fish for themselves."
Scott and members of the BOC agreed to have MARTA conduct a 45-day study to determine what issues need to be addressed in order to improve the system.
In the interim, BOC Chairman Eldrin Bell said he would like to address "low-hanging fruit," such as complaints about dirty bus exteriors and long wait times between buses on the same route. He said he would like to pave the unpaved C-TRAN bus facility, located on Southlake Parkway in Jonesboro, as well as utilize existing grant money to purchase additional buses.
"A lot of that dirtiness on the buses comes from the lot that they come into," said Bell. "The average trip now being 71 minutes ... I want that cut. I have given [MARTA] that 45-day window, so they can come up with some strong recommendations of how they can improve service, keep buses cleaner, and relieve the overcrowding."
"I'm pretty much in agreement across the board with what [Scott] had to say," said Jeff Metarko, interim director of the county's Transportation and Development department. "The ridership is up, mainly because of the gas prices. We're actually overworking the buses to meet the demand that people are requesting. Unfortunately, we don't have enough buses."
Metarko said that currently, the areas of Rex and Ellenwood are under-served by C-TRAN and hopes the 45-day study will generate ideas as how to bring service to those areas.
Clayton County Police Chief Jeff Turner said addressing the increased number of C-TRAN riders has been complicated by the fact that in May, Gov. Sonny Perdue signed into law House Bill 89, which greatly expands the rights of registered gun owners to bring guns into restaurants and onto public transit. The bill became effective on July 1.
"I really wish they would have not passed that law," said Turner. "I think it's going to make our job even more trying, because of the propensity of having even more weapons on the streets.
"So many people want to carry a gun for safety, but they don't want to take the time to train how to properly use a handgun, so that presents a higher safety risk," Turner continued. He said he is currently in discussions with C-TRAN officials about having uniformed and plain-clothes officers "sporadically ride C-TRAN for added protection."
"We're not expecting trouble ... but people with guns on the bus can add to our problem," said Turner. "We have to realize that it is here and we have to deal with it."