Macon Transit Authority looking to keep customers as it pushes for new, dependable buses

Sharon Workman said about seven of her friends have lost their jobs because the Macon Transit Authority kept getting them to work late.

“Sometimes we’ll be trying to get to work and the bus breaks down.” she said.

But the authority’s pushing to get a dozen new buses, replacing about half the fleet. By early next spring, said general manager Rick Jones, the system could have a new look, a new feel — and the reliability critical to keeping passengers.

“What it’ll do, if it does nothing else, it’ll allow us to do what we say we’re going to do,” Jones said. “Right now, you can’t depend on us to get you to your job.”

That would be welcome relief to Zutredia Hawkins, who said she was sometimes late to work twice a week because of bus problems. One morning just a few weeks ago, her bus kept shutting down.

The city has 29 traditional transit buses now, all expected to last 12 years. The new buses, called cutaway buses, look like a larger version of a church bus or hotel shuttle van. The cutaway is meant to last five to seven years — half the life span of a traditional bus, but it could be replaced twice as often. They also cost about $107,000 — a third of the price of a traditional bus, Jones said. They’re slightly smaller but hold about the same number of passengers.

Many of the existing transit buses were built by a Mexican company that has since gone out of business, making it difficult to find parts and technical support, said Michael Westbrooks, maintenance superintendent. He’s excited that cutaway buses could be coming, bringing a fresh look and needed reliability to the city.

“I would love that,” he said. “That would be a proud day for me and a proud day for Macon.”

The transit authority now shares space with other city vehicles in a maintenance yard that’s kept bu-stling. Friday, a worker quickly repaired a broken door hinge to get a bus back on the road. But Bus 577 went back on the road with two maintenance doors clamped shut with wire ties, three shattered windows, floor tiles coming off and 527,287 miles on the odometer.

Jones said he hopes to soon get clearance from the state to collect federal money needed to buy the new buses. He wants to get about 10 cutaway buses and two traditional buses, which together would replace nearly half of the city’s fleet.

Hawkins said she’d love some new buses. She’s tired of getting wet on a Houston Avenue bus with a leaky roof.

“When it rains, it’s raining on the inside. The water drips on the seats,” she said. “They take our money, but (passengers) get half the service, because half don’t have air” conditioning.

Jones said problems such as those could be solved with new buses. The new vehicles also could usher in a new paint scheme for the transit authority.

New buses could let the transit authority take a fresh look at its routes. It raised fares and cut service last year because of financial woes.

Craig Ross, vice chairman of the authority, said the cutaway buses may solve long-standing problems.

“Those buses have to be out on time every morning,” he said. “And believe me, they’re Band-Aided. If they break down, it puts us in a real bad situation with our customers.”

Federal statistics from 2007 show that in a typical week, Macon Transit buses had at least one mechanical failure in a week and four other kinds of failures. Ross said Macon Transit customers get in trouble at work when they’re late because of bus problems. Curing that may solve some of the system’s other problems.

“We’ll be the first to admit: Customer service, it’s been bad,” he said. “And that’s been hurting ridership.”

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.