Macon transit authority offers to help Warner Robins start public transportation

chwright@macon.comMarch 25, 2013 

WARNER ROBINS -- The city may have a new avenue to begin a public transit system that officials have been talking about for years.

The Macon-Bibb County Transit Authority has offered Warner Robins, and other Houston County governments, a collaboration that would have buses rolling for the first time. It’s a prospect some community members want, and council members said they would be interested in exploring -- but cost is a huge factor.

“At the end of the day, we know we need (public transit),” said Warner Robins City Councilman Daron Lee. “Public transportation would come to fruition quicker in this area because they have done it.”

Last year, the state Legislature passed a bill that allows MTA to expand to a multi-regional system. Before, the authority could only run routes from Macon to a place outside of its regular service area -- such as the Buses into Robins Daily route to Robins Air Force Base. Now, the system can manage and operate routes within other Georgia cities and counties.

With Warner Robins’ focus in recent years to implement its first public transportation system in the ever-growing community, MTA officials offered at a council work session Friday to help the city get started and possibly contract to run the system.

“We have everything that you need,” said Craig Ross, chairman of the MTA board. “We have drivers. We have buses. We have mechanics, and we have the whole nine yards. We can help y’all get started.”

Rick Jones, chief executive officer of MTA, said the system has come far in the past three years. It went from smoky, old buses and a $1.2 million deficit to a brand new fleet and equipment and operating in the positive.

“And honestly, I doubt that anyone in the surrounding community would have wanted us in their community because of the reputation that had been built up over the years because of a struggling system,” Jones said.

Jones said he’s proud of the system and would be happy to extend it to Warner Robins. Someone in Warner Robins need only take the reins to kick start the process.

Jones said the city would first need to decide where the routes would go, how often and for how long. From there, the number of needed buses and man hours would be configured. Finally, a cost estimate could be generated.

Alex Talley, a member of the Georgia Initiative for Community Housing in Warner Robins, said it’s the most viable idea she’s heard. Two years ago, she ran for City Council on the platform of public transportation and wants to see the city work with Macon to make it a reality.

“Whatever the contract costs, it would be less than if we had to start from scratch,” Talley said, offering the city could start with just a few routes.

In December, Warner Robins completed a transit study that explored costs and possible routes. The study found the most needed routes could run along Watson Boulevard, through the north side of town, down to Perry and into a small part of Peach County.

Jessica Bird, Warner Robins’ transportation planner, said meetings between the different jurisdictions are needed to decide how to proceed and who is interested.

“So there’s still a lot of details that have to be ironed out,” she said, adding it’s unknown if MTA would be part of the fabric.

Jones said Warner Robins Mayor Chuck Shaheen has shown interest in the collaboration. Shaheen did not return an e-mail for comment Monday.

Tommy Stalnaker, Houston County Commission chairman, said the county isn’t interested in new services or programs that would cost more money right now, including public transportation.

“We are not in a position to be expanding the role of the county,” he said. “It is all we can do to keep the services we already have going.”

Warner Robins City Councilman Mike Davis and Councilwoman Carolyn Robbins said money could be an issue for the city. Davis, Robbins, Lee and Councilman Mike Brashear said they are willing to explore the idea, but more research is needed. Some suggested asking MTA if a trial is possible.

“And I just haven’t heard the public outcry for it, personally,” Davis said, adding he’s not saying, “no.”

The fact that public transit is not, in general, a profitable business concerned Davis and Brashear.

But Jones, who has worked for public transportation agencies for more than three decades, said costs can be minimized, and the service is more about the benefits to the community.

It allows people to go to work and draws interest from companies who need their employees and customers to be able to reach them.

“Most communities of that size do have a transit system in place,” Jones said. “And when you have the largest employer in the state that needs to have some support in getting people to and from their places of employment, then you need to look at it pretty hard.”

To contact writer Christina M. Wright, call 256-9685.

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