By Joel Hall
Bus riders, bus operators and public-transit enthusiasts from across Clayton County, and elsewhere, came in numbers Wednesday to demand that county commissioners maintain Clayton's C-TRAN bus service.
Nearly 200 people, many sporting red shirts and waving white rally towels in a show of solidarity, protested proposed service cuts and fare surcharges, and urged commissioners to find the $1.3 million needed to fill C-TRAN's budget shortfall.
Security at the Clayton County Administration Building was high on Wednesday, as local police and fire department officials secured the perimeter and sheriff's deputies searched attendees with walk-through, and handheld, metal detectors.
Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell was the only commissioner seen attending the public hearing, which was led by Clayton County Public Transit Coordinator Frank Beauford. According to county officials, 68 people offered public comment, including C-TRAN employees, the unemployed, the underemployed, students, scholars and elected officials. Many of those at the meeting came to it aboard off-duty C-TRAN buses.
Gary Frank, a bus operator for C-TRAN, echoed sentiments shared by many in attendance that the county is acting in haste. He said he believes the county has not done enough to fund and operate C-TRAN at its current levels of service.
"They have not done enough research to find out what services are needed and what services are not needed," Frank said. "They [are proposing to take away] the 502 and 500 routes, but we haven't seen anywhere a decrease in the amount of time people have to wait for buses. If they could find the money to pull Southern Regional Medical Center out of an economic slump ... they can find the money to pull C-TRAN out of its economic woes."
In September, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), which is contracted to operate C-TRAN, reported that the county had underfunded the service by $1.3 million, and threatened to end its contract with the county if it did not meet the shortfall. In an effort to close the funding gap, the Board of Commissioners has proposed the elimination of routes, the elimination of weekend services, fare increases, possibly doubling the cost of paratransit service, and a six-month, $1.75 surcharge on all one-way travel.
Joyce Rogers, a member of the C-TRAN Elderly Disabled Access Advisory Committee, said cutting services would not solve C-TRAN's funding issues.
"If you increase the fares, you decrease the services, you are not going to make more money," Rogers said. "You are still going to be in a deficit. If you are talking about charging paratransit riders $3, and then adding another $1.75, that is $4.75 per trip. For a fixed-income senior, or anybody working, that is ridiculous."
Several disabled C-TRAN riders who depend on the service expressed their displeasure with the idea of cutting or eliminating C-TRAN.
"Each morning, I get up and I catch the paratransit, and I catch it at 4:45 a.m., in the morning, so I can go to work in downtown Atlanta," said Leslie Horton, a C-TRAN rider who is visually impaired. "I like my independence. If you take away the bus system, you take away my independence."
Benita West, president of the metro Atlanta chapter of the Amalgamated Transit Union, told county officials that the proposed rate hikes were too high. She implored the county to meet citizens halfway.
"They're [the public] willing to give with a 50-cent raise [in fares], but they want the county to meet them with the rest," West said.
Paul McLennan, a DeKalb County resident and a member of Atlanta Jobs with Justice, said that Clayton County needs to "step up" by joining MARTA's service area and paying the 1 percent sales tax that DeKalb County, Fulton County, and the City of Atlanta pay to have the service.
"We are concerned about transit as a human right in the region," McLennan said. "The disability community, the transit dependent, students, people who rely on this system, their rights will be violated if this system shuts down."
State Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam (D-Riverdale) urged county officials at the meeting to consider the consequences of short-cutting C-TRAN service.
"Now is not the time, with the economic hardships that we are all facing, to make it harder on our citizens," Abdul-Salaam said. "If you cut C-TRAN ... you are going to have more demand on DFACS, food stamps, Medicaid, social services and our businesses will lose substantial revenue."
Clayton County commissioners were not required to attend Wednesday's public hearing. Despite that, many people at the meeting expressed outrage at the fact that four of the five county commissioners were not present.
"They are showing you with empty seats how they feel about you," said Nichelle Phillips, a C-TRAN bus driver. "With the commissioners who aren't here, it shows not that they can't get [the $1.3 million dollars to fund C-TRAN's budget shortfall], but that they don't want to get it."
Clayton County Chief of Staff Alex Cohilas said that members of the board have been "well informed" of the issues and will be briefed before voting on changes to C-TRAN service on Oct. 13.
"The board has encouraged public discourse on the issue and they will be provided detailed reports from staff to see if there were any new comments and anything different from what was previously stated," Cohilas said. "There will no doubt be discussion next Tuesday on the matter. Oct. 13 is when they will vote on the changes."
In January, the Board of Commissioners voted to back Southern Regional Medical Center's refinancing of a $40.2 million bond. Bell said he believes the county can find a way to pay for C-TRAN service, either through rebudgeting or by getting citizens to agree to a 1 percent, additional sales tax to fund the service.
"We supported the hospital," Bell said. "We subsidized our EMS (Emergency Medical Service) by $7 million. We supported our school system and all they had to do, even though it was not the direct responsibility of our commission. We did that because it was the right thing to do. It is my view that it would be the right thing for us to provide transit options."
"Once the citizens so provide for us a 1-cent sales tax, I would like to see us get out of the bus business," Bell added. "That's MARTA's business. Let's get MARTA doing it and make sure they are adequately funded, with adequate oversight."
Additional comments about C-TRAN can be sent to Clayton County Public Transit Coordinator Franklin Beauford before Oct. 12, by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments can also be mailed to 7960 North McDonough Road, Jonesboro, Ga., 30236 or faxed to (770) 477-3667.