By Joel Hall
While Clayton County commissioners declined to hear a scheduled presentation Tuesday by MARTA representatives on how the county's C-TRAN service can be improved, riders called for additional buses and expanded routes.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport employees, C-TRAN bus drivers, disabled residents and people who depend on C-TRAN to get to work came in buses and paratransit vans to air their concerns to the Board of Commissioners. More than a dozen people asked the county to invest more money in public transit.
Nichelle Phillips, a C-TRAN driver for five years, said she fears for the safety of her passengers due to overcrowding.
"Many mornings, I have at least 15 people above the yellow line on my bus because there is no more room in the rear area for them," she said. "I have literally counted 78 people who got off my bus one morning at the airport on a bus that only holds 42 seats. If I stop short or anything happens, those people's lives are in jeopardy."
Debra Collier, a Riverdale resident, complained that Clayton residents who work late at the airport are often left with no way to return home.
"It would serve the public better if the last bus left the airport at 1 a.m., in the morning, because there are people that are getting off from work," she said. "The current time, it's like 9:30 p.m., or 10:30 p.m. There are almost fights out there at the airport because there are not enough buses for people to get on and come back from work."
Several paratransit riders in attendance at the commission meeting Tuesday raised concerns that paratransit buses don't wait long enough at stops, and that the routes don't reach certain areas of the county.
"We need a 10-minute window," said Katie Favors Reeves, a Clayton County resident who uses C-TRAN's paratransit service. "Right now, we have a five-minute window. Sometimes they will leave us if we are not out there."
Marsha Lawton, a Jonesboro resident who is wheelchair-bound, told commissioners she "would ride C-TRAN all the time, but it doesn't come to my house."
"It makes me not have my independence," she said. "I would love to work right now. I think the service is great. They should expand the service."
Several speakers expressed a willingness to pay more for the service if commissioners were willing to decrease wait times by adding more buses to the fleet.
Beverly Scott, general manager and CEO of MARTA, which currently operates C-TRAN, was present at Tuesday's meeting. She said MARTA is currently waiting on the Board of Commissioners for the green light to purchase "five or six" additional buses.
"There wasn't anything that anybody said that was unreasonable," said Scott. "They are saying we'll pay more, just give us better service. We have done all the research we can. When Clayton County says 'go,' we can get the buses here in about 10 weeks."
Scott said each 40-foot passenger bus would seat 42 to 44 people and cost about $400,000 each.
Clayton County Transit Coordinator Frank Beauford collected the names and phone numbers of the people who spoke at the meeting. He said he believes transportation services are as important as police and fire services.
"It doesn't surprise me because I get the calls every day," said Beauford. "We know the service is not where it needs to be, but it is getting there. Sixty-one percent [of C-TRAN's riders] need it to get to work."
Commissioner Wole Ralph said the changes MARTA is proposing would come with a significant price tag, and that the board voted against hearing the presentation Tuesday to allow the recommendations to be reviewed by the board's Finance Committee.
"They [the recommendations] have a pretty significant budgetary impact," said Ralph, who serves are chairman of the Finance Committee. "It's a human issue, but it's very much a financial issue."
He said he would like to give the Finance Committee additional time to advise the full board.
The board also delayed voting on a resolution, which, if approved, would support legislation to create a new Clayton County State Court judgeship. Ralph said the creation of an additional judge would result in the need for additional support staff. The financial impact of those positions, he believes, also needs to be reviewed by the Finance Committee.
"It involves clerks, additional sheriff's deputies, and solicitors," said Ralph. "All of them are things we have to contemplate."
Yolanda Lewis, court administrator for State and Superior Court, said the salary for an additional state court judge would be $139,954. She believes addressing the court's case load would generate enough revenue to offset the cost of the additional judge and any support staff.
"That would be moving cases into the system and getting them disposed, and there would be some fines and fees associated with that judgeship," said Lewis. "When we add an additional judge, we believe there will be some revenue generation that will offset the cost of the new judge."
Lewis pointed to a recent judicial workload assessment conducted by the Administrative Office of the Courts of Georgia, which she said shows Clayton's four state court judges have the caseload of more than nine judges.
"The additional judgeship is just very important to the quality of justice in the county," she said.