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Plan to add Clayton Xpress routes denied

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

The Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA) announced Tuesday that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has shot down a proposal to add three new Xpress bus routes in Clayton County, following the March 31 demise of the county's C-TRAN bus service.

The plan -- which the Clayton County Board of Commissioners consented to on Feb. 16 -- involved the county transferring $2.4 million and 18 of its regular-service buses to GRTA, in exchange for GRTA operating three new Xpress routes from Clayton County to Atlanta for up to three years, or until funds expire.

In a Feb. 26 letter addressed to GRTA Deputy Director Jim Ritchey, FTA Region IV Administrator Yvette G. Taylor told GRTA that it "has not provided a sufficient financial plan to demonstrate the likely long-term viability of the new type of service." The letter states that GRTA had written a proposal to the FTA on Feb. 4, requesting Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) Program funds in order to implement the new routes.

"Your proposal does appear to contemplate a new type of service, consistent with some requirements of the CMAQ program, but the consideration of weakened air quality benefits and the lack of a reliable funding source beyond the initial three year demonstration period do not appear to meet the intent of the CMAQ program," Taylor wrote. "GRTA has indicated that it intends to leverage against a future sales tax referendum that has yet to be submitted to the voters; this possible funding source alone cannot be relied upon to confirm that the new type of service, for the purposes of the CMAQ program, is feasible for the long-term."

According to GRTA Communications Director William Mecke, GRTA currently operates three Xpress bus routes in Clayton County and was hoping to use the three new routes to increase its rider capacity. He said GRTA expects as many as 3,000 C-TRAN users to begin using Xpress buses once the C-TRAN bus service ends on March 31.

"We're disappointed, but we are going to move forward," Mecke said on Tuesday. "A lot of those folks [C-TRAN riders] will try to move over to the existing Xpress service. We're going to try to be prepared for them as best we can."

Mecke said GRTA may adjust to the increased Xpress bus ridership it expects by adding more buses or drivers. However, he said GRTA will wait until April before it decides how to use its resources.

"We don't have a lot of flexibility and we don't have a lot of extra funds," Mecke said. "We will probably wait until that first week of April to see how many people do come over before we make any hard-and-fast commitments."

The news of the FTA's decision filtered into the Clayton County Board of Commissioners meeting on Tuesday. During the meeting, the board voted 4-0 -- with Commissioner Michael Edmondson not present -- to approach U.S. Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) to ask him to use his influence to intervene in the FTA's decision to deny CMAQ funding for the new Xpress routes.

Clayton County Board of Commissioners Vice Chairman Wole Ralph expressed disappointment with the FTA's decision, but said its decision "outlines the continuing [federal] frustration with the state of Georgia" in its failure, thus far, to provide state funding for public transit.

"We saw the FTA deny [Atlanta Mayor] Kasim Reed's proposal for the Peachtree street cars for the same reason," Ralph said. "There is not a commitment from the state to fund the system for 30 years or more. Unless the state of Georgia is willing to get serious about transportation ... they [the federal government] are not going to support the state's [public transportation] efforts.

"It [GRTA's plan to open three new Xpress routes] didn't provide a solution for 100 percent of the people, but it provided a solution for a significant portion of the people who rely on the buses to get to work," he continued. "We'll be working with our Congressman David Scott to see if we can get a more favorable decision."

On Tuesday night, Michael Andel, Scott's chief of staff, said Scott "is very committed to supporting transit programs in Clayton County and the Southern Crescent," but added that without state support, other public transit programs in Georgia will continue to fail.

"This has been the sad story in Georgia for many projects, including the stalled commuter rail project," Andel said. "Recently, Georgia missed out on a multi-million dollar stimulus transit grant due to a lack of matching funds. The grants were awarded to states like North Carolina and Florida. Until there is a real commitment from the state to funding transportation other than paving asphalt, metro Atlanta will continue to miss out on infrastructure projects. C-TRAN is just one of the transit systems in Georgia to suffer."

Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said he was not disappointed in the FTA's decision because the Xpress bus option still "does not adequately serve the people we need to serve" and "did nothing to serve our paratransit riders." He said he believes it is not too late for the board to reconsider its October decision to end C-TRAN.

"What they are asking David Scott to do, he can't do," Bell said. "How is he going to, even with his influence as a congressman, overrule something that is in the regulation? Had we been willing at all, we could have been able to find a way to extend transit until a time that a transit sales tax came before the General Assembly, which is before them now. I am going on the record asking our board to reconsider its position on transit."