WARNER ROBINS -- For years local officials have discussed starting a public transit system, but the Warner Robins Housing Authority has quietly made it happen.
The two-bus Warner Robins Transit System began Monday, and so far ridership has been slow. The buses had just three or four riders total Monday and Tuesday, and no one rode Wednesday.
"That was to be expected," said Oscar Mason, the housing authority's director of development. "It's just getting started, and it has been raining every day."
The service will be free for the next two to three months, and after that the cost will be $1.50.
Next week, the buses will run Monday through Wednesday. But after the new year, the buses will operate Monday through Friday.
The $70,000 startup costs are covered by a federal grant, Mason said, and that covers the bus leases and operational costs.
The housing authority would have preferred that the local governments start a transit system, but the need was so great that the authority took the initiative instead, he said.
"All the residents we have spoken to have said there is a need for it," he said.
A public bus service usually requires local tax subsidies to remain viable, and that has long been a sticking point for starting one. Mason said there are no local dollars used for the Warner Robins service.
If the service does need local help to operate for the long term, Centerville Mayor John Harley said it's something his city would consider supporting. The bus routes go to the Houston County Galleria in Centerville.
Also, Harley said, public transit would be considered a plus for the community by a future Base Realignment and Closure Commission that would determine the fate of the base.
"We will support them as much as we can," Harley said of the transit service. "The council has talked favorably about it in the past, but we knew it was something we couldn't do by ourselves."
Another reason Mason said he isn't too concerned about the low ridership this week is that the service doesn't officially begin until Monday. This week has mostly been a practice for the drivers to learn the routes.
One of the drivers, former Army Ranger Darnell Callies, said a lot of people have been asking him about the service. They have seen the well-marked bus around town, even if there haven't been many riders.
"People just need to get used to it," he said as he drove his afternoon route one day this week.
His only passengers were his wife and two daughters. He picked them up at a stop near his home so they could see what riding the bus is like. Some of the stops on the route already are marked with signs, and all the signs are supposed to be up next week, Callies said.
The buses start at Rosemont Court, an apartment for senior citizens near Warner Robins City Hall.
Annie Brown, 67, lives there and doesn't have any transportation, but she hasn't used the bus service.
"It's not going anywhere I need to go," she said.
She said she appreciates that it's available, though, and she might use it in the future.
The buses run throughout the day from near Robins Air Force Base to Centerville. The routes are still being tweaked and may be changed, so anyone interested in using the bus service should check the latest schedule at the Warner Robins Housing Authority website at www.warnerrobinsha.com.
The buses start the routes from opposite ends, then backtrack the routes after getting to the last stop. The way it's set up, Callies said, anyone going to any stop should get picked up by the other bus in about an hour.
The buses are 2016 Ford E-350s that seat 16 passengers and have wheelchair lifts.
A year from now, Mason predicts, the service will be operating six to seven buses.
To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.