Macon-Bibb transit authority has new boss

Last week, Rick Jones ditched his coat and tie and got on a bus.

He rode each route, getting off at one stop and then waiting for the next bus to take him back. He looked at the routes, listened to passengers and talked with drivers.

Most didn’t know the identity of the moustached man with glasses. Only later would drivers find out he was their new boss. Jones is the general manager and chief executive officer of the Macon-Bibb County Transit Authority.

“I think it has a lot of opportunity,” Jones said of Macon’s public transportation system, shortly after riding the routes.

Jones’ first day on the job was July 20, so he’s still learning about Macon’s public transportation system and the issues it faces.

He said he doesn’t plan to make any changes until after he’s been here for 30 days. But he’s already getting some ideas — many drawn from his 30 years of experience at other transit systems.

Jones, 61, comes to Macon from Savannah, where he served three years as executive director of the Savannah Mobility Management Board. There, he oversaw a 14-vehicle system of shuttle buses, streetcars and water ferries that supported the city’s tourism industry and downtown employees, he said.

When federal funding dried up and hotel/motel tax revenue, which supported the board’s endeavors, waned, Jones’ job was cut from the budget, he said.

Pete Liakakis, chairman of the Chatham County Commission, said Jones was responsible for the creation of the “dot” shuttle system and the River Street streetcar, both free services.

“He did a good job with that,” he said.

Liakakis said he didn’t know Jones personally, but “when you have somebody like that, word gets around pretty good,” he said. “I think it was Macon’s gain to get him to come there and be involved in the Macon system.”

Before Jones moved to Savannah to live with his wife, Jeannie, he worked for almost six years as general superintendent for Paratransit Service at the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority. At MARTA, he managed 155 vehicles, 240 operators and 40 staff members, according to his résumé.

In recent years, he also has worked as general manager and chief executive officer of the Dutchess County Loop for Progressive Transportation Services in New York.

When thinking about what he might like to do with Macon’s public transportation system, Jones recalled his time as general manager and chief executive officer for the transit system in Jefferson Parish, La.

Faced with increased costs and a stagnant budget, Jones said he studied buses’ ridership statistics. Using that information, he eliminated infrequently used routes and increased service to the more popular ones.

In one year, fare box recovery — the ratio of money from the fare box that pays for the service — increased from 30 percent to 47 percent, Jones said. The system also went from having a deficit and borrowing money to having a surplus, he said.

In Macon, fare box recovery is less than 20 percent and, Jones said, he would like to increase that. He said he also would like to look at the transit authority’s insurance, which has rates that appear high to him.

Jones said he lowered insurance rates in Jefferson Parish by creating a detailed accident policy and instituting incentive pay for drivers and maintenance workers who were accident free. Rates dropped to about one-third of the amount the system previously paid, he said.

Like many other public transportation systems, money is tight for the local transit authority.

Last year, the authority increased bus fares by 25 cents to $1.25 and cut some service in an effort to save $600,000 in the face of rising fuel costs.

In April, the authority asked Bibb County and the city of Macon to revise the tri-party agreement the local governments have with the transit authority in a way that would make the authority financially stable.

Authority officials want the city and county to be responsible for helping the transit authority maintain a 45-day operating reserve. They also want assistance in covering for an annual federal grant — that often arrives late — until the money is received.

The transit authority has been taking out loans and racking up interest in the interim.

So far, neither the county nor the city have agreed to the plan, although at least some county commissioners say something should be done.

Jones said other systems also fall into the same predicament where they’re faced with borrowing money until grants are available.

“I think if the city and county are capable of extending the funds, it would be a good thing to do,” he said. “We’re in this together.”

Jones also said he would like to research other revenue sources.

Tom Hudson, the transit authority’s chairman, said he hopes Jones can help the authority secure more funding. Board members would like to expand routes — reversing earlier cutbacks — and add more buses to cut wait times at the stops, Hudson said. They would like to see public transit expand to the industrial part of Bibb and other counties.

“A lot of people come here, and we’re the only (public) transportation in Middle Georgia,” he said.

Hudson said the board was impressed with Jones’ experience in public transportation and with the other transit authorities where he has worked. “He can help us move to another level as it relates to public transportation,” Hudson said.

To contact writer Jennifer Burk, call 744-4345.