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Employees, passengers grapple with bus service's end

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

By Joel Hall and Curt Yeomans

jhall@news-daily.com

For Chiquita Harris-Head, Thursday began like almost every other day. She woke up at 6:30 a.m., and began getting her two children ready for school. They left, and then it sank in: Thursday was not like every other day for her. Clayton County's public transportation system, C-TRAN, had shut down, and Harris-Head, who was the driver of the last C-TRAN bus on the road Wednesday night, was now unemployed.

Harris-Head ran some errands Thursday morning, and then she said she expected to go over to the C-TRAN Bus Facility in Jonesboro in the afternoon, to fill out unemployment paperwork with help from representatives of the Georgia Department of Labor.

"I was like 'wow!' when I saw it on the news [Thursday] morning," Harris-Head said. "That's when it sunk in that C-TRAN is really gone."

For C-TRAN riders, and employees, Thursday was the beginning of a new reality. There is no longer a public transportation system available to get people around Clayton County.

Thursday was the day after C-TRAN for the people who depended on it.

At 11:59 p.m., on Wednesday, Clayton County terminated C-TRAN. The bus service began on Oct. 1, 2001. All 30 of the service's buses and paratransit vans were docked at the C-TRAN Bus Facility on Southlake Parkway on Wednesday night, inventoried and inspected on Thursday morning, and readied to be taken away to the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA) Xpress Bus Facility on Cash Memorial Boulevard in Forest Park on Thursday afternoon.

GRTA will store, repair, and eventually sell or dispose of the buses according to federal regulations, said GRTA Spokesperson William Mecke.

"We're taking the buses because as far as the feds are concerned, we are the ones responsible for them," Mecke said, referring to the original federal grant which GRTA received on the county's behalf to start C-TRAN. "The condition of the grant is that if you don't use it completely, then Clayton County would be responsible for paying that money back ... $2.3 million ... the unused, depreciated value of the buses, the FTA [Federal Transit Administration] wants that back. We're just a pass-through."

Mecke said Clayton County will keep three paratransit vans, while GRTA will try to sell the other buses. Any profits generated from the bus sales would go toward helping the county repay the federal government.

Like Harris-Head, some Clayton residents struggled with the demise of C-TRAN on Thursday.

Ann Pryor, a Jonesboro resident and security worker at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, waited anxiously Thursday afternoon for a vanpool to pick her up at the end of her shift. Her son brought her to work Thursday morning.

Pryor is concerned about losing her job. The Clayton County Board of Commissioners' decision to end C-TRAN has left her "scrambling" for other transportation options, she said.

"I would catch the bus from Jonesboro to the airport," said Pryor, who has been a C-TRAN passenger for five years. "My son took me today, and I was late. I don't know how I am going to get there tomorrow. I don't even know how I am going to get home."

Vernon and Nadiyah Florence, a Riverdale couple, said they relied on C-TRAN to get everywhere, and that its absence was felt immediately.

The Riverdale couple said they could not get to their son's school, the Unidos Dual Language Charter School in Forest Park, while he was experiencing an asthma attack.

Kindergartner, Khadir Florence, 6, survived the ordeal because the school's principal, brought the youth home, according to his mother. If the bus service had been in place, the parents would have been able to use a nebulizer machine to get vaporized medicine to the youth, Nadiyah Florence said.

"It was very nerve-wracking to feel helpless like that," the youngster's mother said. "My husband and I both have asthma, so we know what our son was going through. I felt like my hands were tied behind my back, because we had no other way to help him."

Vernon Florence said he had to go to Walmart Thursday, to buy groceries. The trip is a mile each way, he said, and he carried back the items he purchased in a bookbag strapped across his back.

"I can imagine what guys in the military go through when they have to carry their heavy equipment around with them all the time," Vernon Florence said.

Akouazi Dedue, owner of Sika Hair Braiding on Ga. Highway 85 in Riverdale, is worried she might lose her eight-year-old hair braiding salon without C-TRAN.

"I have my customers who complain that they can't come here anymore," she said. Dedue, who owns a vehicle, said five of her 12 employees depended on C-TRAN, and used a taxi cab Thursday to bring them to work.

Monique Richardson, of Morrow, said she couldn't get to her job at a Bank of America in Union City. She used to catch a C-TRAN bus to the airport, and transfer to a MARTA bus route to the bank.

"At this moment I am stuck, and I don't know what to do," said Richardson. She said she is unable to drive because she is partially blind. She said she is worried she could lose her job because of her transportation issue.

"I don't know how I am going to pay my mortgage, if I am not employed," Richardson said. "It is really unfair and really inhumane."

Meanwhile, employees who had manned the county's bus service were at the C-TRAN Bus Facility for an unemployment seminar and cookout hosted by the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) on Thursday. MARTA operated the bus service for the county. The employees were due to be served hot dogs, hamburgers and barbecue, while representatives from the Department of Labor and the Atlanta Regional Workforce Board helped them file unemployment claims and sign up for skills training classes.

Monica Johnson, a Riverdale resident who drove buses for C-TRAN for three years, said she signed a new lease for a less expensive apartment in Riverdale on Thursday morning, prior to coming to the unemployment seminar.

"I physically move tomorrow," Johnson said. "I signed my new lease today because I can't afford where I live."

While Johnson said she has no employment prospects at this time, she said she felt worse for the C-TRAN riders.

Johnny Leveritte, MARTA's supervisor of bus operations for C-TRAN, said he drove part of the 504 route, down Flint River Road and Taylor Road, just before 5 a.m., on Thursday, and had a "cruel and empty" feeling when he saw three people waiting at bus stops.

"It kinda makes you feel small," Leveritte said. "They've come to depend on you to get them from place to place, and I kinda feel like I've failed them ... For a lot of people in Clayton County, the public transportation system is as important as the police, and the fire, and the EMS people."

Staff writer Maria-Jose Subiria contributed to this article.