What we want:
Athens Transit should run later at night, expand to additional parts of the county, increase frequency of service, and convert to a fare-free system.
- People can get more places. As just one example, expanding service up Highway 29 would enable people to get to the VA clinic, the Department of Driver Services (how are you supposed to get there if your license is suspended, for example?), Athens Christian School, and several neighborhoods with large low-income and/or undocumented populations.
- Protection for undocumented Athenians. Too many of our undocumented neighbors have to drive to work, school, or leisure activities without the driver’s licenses denied to them by the Georgia State Legislature. In doing so, they risk tickets, detention, and deportation. When the bus serves more of our neighborhoods, more undocumented folks will be able to get where they need to go without needing to risk having their lives torn apart.
- Massive savings to those who already ride the bus. Regular use for one adult can cost over $900/year, a significant sum to any Athenian and an unacceptable burden for the 38% of us living in poverty.
- Cost-savings on fare boxes. Athens Transit currently spends significant funds purchasing and maintaining bus fare boxes. Let’s make that zero.
- Safety. Many of the areas to which we need to expand bus service, including U.S. 29, U.S. 441, and Macon Hwy., have no pedestrian or bike infrastructure and too many people are forced to walk or bike there for lack of other transportation options.
- A more comprehensive system. When people know they can count on the bus system to serve most, rather than only some, of their transportation needs, they can integrate it more thoroughly in their life. It can become the default means of getting where you need to go instead of only an auxiliary option. Some would feel more comfortable foregoing a first or a second car, knowing the bus can serve more of their needs than it currently does.
- More federal money. As ridership increases with expanded service, Athens Transit may be eligible for more federal funding.
- Climate change mitigation. Increased use of the bus instead of cars results in a reduction of the emissions driving climate change and air pollution.
- Economic development. Studies show that, on average, every dollar invested by local governments in public transit leads to four dollars in new economic activity.
- Fewer traffic accidents. Buses have been shown to be much safer for riders than cars, leading to better health for Athenians and a reduced strain on our health care system.
- Less need for parking spaces.
- Less traffic.
The political situation:
Fare-free bus service has been part of the political dialogue in Athens since the Tim for Athens mayoral campaign in 2014. Since then, A4E and our allies have made progress toward our goals for the bus system. First, A4E got it’s first big policy win in 2015 with the advent of Sunday bus service, which we prioritized after community surveys indicated the hardship caused by 6-day service. Then, in 2016 fares were eliminated for all Athenians under age 18. Coupled with UGA students, who already rode fare-free, this makes for a large chunk of our community already experiencing the benefits we want to guarantee for all.
Currently, fares account for only about 13% of Athens Transit operational costs. The rest is split between the federal government, UGA, and the Athens-Clarke County government. Additionally, the ACC government already indirectly pays for a significant chunk of those fares through a variety of programs where passes are given out to cover certain types of need. This means we really only need to get from about 13% user-funding to 0%. That means we need the ACC government to commit about $600,000 in new funding from a budget of over $120 million to join similar college towns like Chapel Hill, NC and Clemson, SC in making our buses fare-free.
Unfortunately, the mayor and commission have so far displayed little interest in pursuing fare-free buses. Realistically, the path forward seems to be to continue promoting fare-free buses in the local political dialogue, to ensure that a supportive mayor and commission are elected in May 2018, and then to implement the policy as part of their first budget.
Further reading: The Case for Fare-Free Buses