MTA recovery plan includes more buses, service to Robins

The Macon Transit Authority is in the middle of a year full of unusually broad and deep changes, but it’s still too early to tell if the agency can win back riders.

Some new buses, as well as new uniforms and paint schemes, have been on the streets for a few months. The authority fixed looming financial problems. And later this month, a new air-conditioned terminal will open. After that may come nearly two replacement fleets of buses, service to Robins Air Force Base and satellite tracking of the transit buses.

General Manager Rick Jones said the agency is still working to stabilize service, though ridership has at least remained flat. For the first six months of 2010, the authority said 360,922 riders used the city bus service.

Meanwhile, five new buses are improving reliability, but Macon Transit still isn’t working as well as riders deserve, Jones said.

“The five (new) buses we’ve got allow us to just meet service levels,” he said.

Army retired Maj. Alfonso Banks, who rides Macon Transit several times a week, said the new buses “are a great addition to the city.”

But he wants more.

“It’s a viable system and it’s needed,” he said, “so we need more buses.”

Some riders say the new buses are fixing the most basic problems. In the past, poor reliability meant sometimes a bus showed up late, or never. Air conditioners were often broken, and some older buses have leaky roofs.

But simply replacing the old buses — some of them made by a company long out of business — won’t solve all the problems. Some riders said creating a new route, such as along Pio Nono Avenue, would allow riders to get across town without coming back to Terminal Station downtown.

Zina Weems said it’s senseless to not have buses connecting elsewhere in Macon. She also wishes for Sunday service.

Linda Smith, a rider on the Vine-ville Avenue line, said she’s glad the air conditioning works in the new buses, but she’s still been late a few times. The new so-called “cutaway” buses also have steps that are too steep and narrow, something Jones said he’s trying to address.

Jones said he won’t look at changing routes or services until the new buses increase reliability. Macon Transit needs 17 buses on the streets at peak times.

It has five of the new church-style buses, which cost a third as much as a traditional transit bus and are last half as long.

And Macon Transit just ordered another nine of those buses, meaning by the end of September almost all the transit buses on the streets could be new.

Jones said he’s also planning to get another four traditional transit buses in the next year.

That would mean a total of 18 new buses, when only 17 are needed on the streets at any one time. That would allow the transit authority to retire the worst old buses and provide some margin of backup for maintenance.

Separately, Jones said Macon Transit is replacing its entire fleet of six paratransit buses this year. Those buses, which serve the elderly and people with disabilities who can’t use the normal transit buses, should be replaced by the end of November.

With a stronger fleet of traditional transit buses, Jones said he hopes to launch a bus service between Macon and Robins Air Force Base, possibly in early- to mid-October.

Other improvements, such as a satellite monitoring system that will allow Macon Transit to determine how on-time its buses are, are also being planned.

The system right now doesn’t track that. That new electronic system also could tell people waiting for a ride when their bus is set to arrive at Terminal Station.

Macon Transit also is hoping to get its own service garage and test a fuel additive that could help the buses run more efficiently, reducing pollution and increasing fuel efficiency.

NewTown Macon’s Hal Baskin, who is involved in the remodeling of Terminal Station, said the changes are so dramatic that he describes Macon Transit as “the new MTA.” He thinks ridership is probably already improving.

Jones wasn’t quite sure. His figures show flat ridership levels. Riders pay about $1 for every $6 in service now, and new riders would greatly improve that ratio.

“I think that the true changes in ridership will happen gradually. We didn’t get here overnight,” Jones said. “We’ve got to walk the walk, and we’ll have to prove we can meet those service promises.”

Improved services, such as different routes, would come only after new buses arrive.

“Until we can reduce our dependency on those old buses, they’ll continue to hurt us,” Jones said.

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.