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Stage set for C-TRAN shutdown tonight

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Citing budgetary constraints, the Clayton County Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 in October to make today the last day of operations for C-TRAN, the county's bus service.

The last outbound trip for the bus service will be the 502 bus, leaving Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport at 11 p.m., according to the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), which operates the service.

At midnight tonight, thousands of people, many who reportedly use C-TRAN to get to their jobs, will lose what they have described as their primary means of transportation.

According to MARTA, 64 C-TRAN employees -- including bus operators, mechanics, and administrative staff -- will lose their jobs.

County officials project Clayton will face a $19 million funding shortfall going into fiscal 2011.

On the eve of C-TRAN's shutdown, Commissioners Wole Ralph, Gail Hambrick, and Sonna Singleton -- three of the four commissioners who voted in October to eliminate the service -- said their decision is sparing the county from bankruptcy. Commissioner Michael Edmondson, who also voted to end C-TRAN, declined to discuss the issue on Tuesday.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Eldrin Bell voted against the shutdown.

"I feel confident the Board of Commissioners has made the right decision," Ralph said on Tuesday. "We've made a decision to be fiscally responsible and not bankrupt the county. My heart goes out to those who have to make adjustments because of the board's decision, but in tough economic times, tough actions are required."

"I voted to discontinue C-TRAN six months ago because there is no revenue source to fund it," Singleton wrote Tuesday in an e-mail. "The chairman [Bell] is in the midst of budget hearings and he has told all department directors to be prepared to cut their budgets significantly in the wake of our expected 19 million dollar shortage in the budget. I feel confident that the vote that the majority of the board took to discontinue C-TRAN service will stand."

"I made a decision that I thought was best for the county, so I am OK with that decision," Hambrick said Tuesday. "We are facing close to a $19 million deficit, so we can't do it. We have other services that we, by law, have to provide and public transit is not one of them. It's all about the money ... the money is just not there."

According to MARTA Spokesperson Cara Hodgson, the shutdown today is exactly three months prior to the end of Clayton County's fiscal year. She said C-TRAN costs about $535,000 per month to operate and that an additional three months of service would cost around $1.6 million. "This would be offset by approximately $525,000 in passenger fare revenue collected over the three-month period," Hodgson said.

Bell said Tuesday the county still has "$4 million left in the C-TRAN budget." He said the board can afford to continue to operate the service, but the will is not there.

"It's a sad day approaching, when the people of this county are not being served as I think we should serve them," Bell said. "They made a request of us through a referendum [to begin operating C-TRAN], gave us the mechanism for funding [it], and not by our words, but by our actions, we have refused to do it.

"We subsidize the EMS [paramedic] service for $7 million a year. We hold the line on [funding for] judges [and] public safety. Why are there sacred cows? Something that the people voted on ... does that not become a duty?" Bell said.

Kevin Green, executive director of Georgia's Clean Air Campaign, said his agency has been reaching out to C-TRAN riders. He said this week, and last week, teams have been visiting high-traffic bus stops to inform riders about commuting options, such as carpools and vanpools.

"It's very unfortunate that this service is going away," Green said. "The reason we're reaching out to commuters, and employers, is to let them know that all hope is not lost. There are a lot of services and incentives that people are not aware of. Do they know that there is a database of 30,000 people in metro Atlanta that have signed up to be carpool partners? Do they know that they don't need to own a car to be a ride match.

"It's not going to work for everybody," however, carpooling "can be a viable option," he added.

According to Hodgson, MARTA along with the Atlanta Regional Workforce Board, and the Georgia Department of Labor Rapid Response Team, will host an outplacement service session for the impacted C-TRAN employees on Thursday. She said the workshop will cover topics such as managing change, acquiring unemployment benefits, occupational skills training, and interviewing techniques.

The potential cost of shutting down C-TRAN is still unknown.

Following the vote to end C-TRAN, the Board of Commissioners enlisted the county's Economic Development Department to conduct an impact study on what the financial cost would be to end C-TRAN service. According to Economic Development Director Grant Wainscott, a formal report has yet to materialize.

"We're still trying to evaluate the total cost," Wainscott said. "We're trying to evaluate what will be the cost of [liquidating] the shelters as well as the buses themselves. I'm not sure we are going to tackle all of those. There is just a large amount of potential information."

In December, MARTA General Manager and CEO Beverly Scott said the county will have to pay back at least $2.1 million to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) for money loaned to Clayton County to operate 24 buses and six para-transit vans.

Bell, however, said his concerns are with those who must find a new way to get to work come Thursday morning. He said he plans to ride the last C-TRAN bus from the airport on Wednesday night.

"I'm just overcome with sadness for these people who have no other options," he said.

To learn about carpool and vanpool options, call 1-877-CLEAN-AIR or visit www.cleanaircampaign.org.