By Joel Hall
Five years ago, Ceilia Robinson, a Jonesboro resident and 13-year employee with a downtown Atlanta banking company, decided enough was enough.
Faced with a frustrating daily commute and steep downtown parking fees, she decided to let someone else do the driving, and commute to work using the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA) Xpress bus service.
According to Robinson, she's been a fan of the service ever since.
"My commute was really bad," she said during her Thursday morning Xpress bus trip from Jonesboro's new Park and Ride lot on Tara Boulevard. "There was so much traffic. When I was driving to work, I was always frazzled and I was late to work most of the time. [On the Xpress bus], I listen to music, I read, I plan my day ... I have my laptop, so I may get something done."
According to GRTA officials, the Xpress bus service has operated in metro Atlanta since 2004. Its 440 route from Hampton to Jonesboro, to downtown Atlanta is one of its first two bus routes. With the pending closure of Clayton County's C-TRAN bus service, Xpress may soon be the only transit option for those needing to commute downtown without a car.
As the Clayton County Board of Commissioners has voted to end C-TRAN come March 31, GRTA officials and Xpress riders are expecting an influx of new Xpress bus users. Officials and riders, however, say the service has survived rider surges before, and that the service continue to be popular.
"It [the 440 route from Hampton to downtown Atlanta] was one of the first routes," said Sherri Campbell, an Xpress bus dispatcher. "There were only two routes at the time. The other one was Sigman Road, out in Conyers. It's [the 440 route has] been one of our biggest routes. We have had some people say that they are in a better frame of mind when they get into work, not having to deal with the traffic. They have even said they are in a better frame of mind when they get home."
Rivers Edge resident, Mildred Dixon, has been riding the Xpress bus from Jonesboro to Atlanta since 2006. A legal secretary at a downtown office building, Dixon said she now occasionally has lunch with friends she has made riding the bus.
"I didn't know about the service until I started working," Dixon said. "My first day on it, I knew I'd never go back to driving again. I only drive when I come in late, have an appointment, or leave early. It [the bus] just gives you a relaxation period before you go to the next stressful place.
"I don't think I've been on C-TRAN," she continued. "I have noticed this week it is more crowded than usual. Almost every seat has been full. Maybe, they [C-TRAN riders] are testing out the service. It's [Xpress is] a very reliable service. They do a good job of getting information out when things change."
GRTA Communications Manager William Mecke said that 109 of the 155 buses in its fleet are used to run Xpress bus routes -- the other 46 are being used to operate the Gwinnett and Cobb County transit systems. About 20 of the 109 Xpress buses are currently undergoing overhaul or preventive maintenance, he said.
There are few resources for new Xpress routes, Mecke said, as 82 buses are needed on a daily basis to operate the current Xpress routes. However, he said GRTA has learned from the gas crisis of 2008, when $4-a-gallon gas prices sent many metro commuters running from their cars to Xpress buses.
"Three dollars [a gallon] is the trigger point for some folks," Mecke said. "When the gas prices hit $4, there was a definite spike [in riders]. If as many people come [from C-TRAN] as we think are going to come, we are going to have some people standing [on the bus] on our runs. We'll figure out where the overloads are happening and do our best to deal with them ... the same thing we do with any other overload."
Hampton resident, Joy Rutledge, who has happily used the Xpress bus to commute from her home to her paralegal job in Buckhead for two years, expressed concern that more riders may mean more stops on Xpress bus routes. She believes the system will continue to function smoothly, if the service can find a way to add more routes.
"Ninety-nine percent of the time, they [Xpress buses] are on time, so I get where I want to go and there aren't any issues ... I like that idea," Rutledge said. "If they do more stops, it's going to hinder us from getting back and forth in a timely manner. If they keep the routes the way they are, and just add some more ... I think it will work."