Politics & Government

Macon Transit asks for public support for funding extension

Earlene Taylor and her family rely heavily on the bus service provided by the Macon Transit Authority.

“We love the bus,” Taylor said Thursday morning at the bus service’s Terminal Station headquarters.

Her daughter rides to work at Wal-Mart on Zebulon Road, one of the many people who depend on MTA buses to reach their jobs. Taylor’s brother, in a wheelchair, relies on the paratransit service. And Taylor herself has ridden the bus for 55 years, using it for many of her daily activities.

“That’s the only transportation we’ve got,” she said.

But federal funding for public transit and transportation infrastructure is scheduled to run out May 31. Unless Congress acts, that would cost the transit authority about half its regular operating budget and four-fifths of its capital budget, MTA General Manager Rick Jones said.

Losing that money would mean “real hardship” for transit riders, MTA board chairman Craig Ross said.

“Tell your local officials to call your state officials, tell your state officials to call your congressmen and senators,” he said.

For its operating budget alone, the transit authority gets $2.7 million each year in federal funds to provide bus and paratransit service. Expiration of federal funding would have a similar impact on transit agencies and infrastructure work nationwide. So the American Public Transportation Association called for a “Stand Up 4 Transportation” day, urging rallies across the country in support of renewed funding.

Thursday’s events at Terminal Station, 200 Cherry St., were part of the local effort. Macon joined Atlanta, New York, Washington, Los Angeles and agencies in at least 90 other cities for the funding push, Jones said.

Transit authority board members and staff -- and costumed characters sent by Comics Plus -- stood or sat behind Jones as he spoke.

Warner Robins Councilman Chuck Shaheen turned up as well. Ross said that a few years ago, Shaheen, who was Warner Robins’ mayor at the time, was instrumental in establishing the bus line that now takes 2,000 to 4,000 riders per month from Macon to jobs on Robins Air Force Base.

Inside Terminal Station, a crowd milled around tables offering health screenings and a variety of information, and waited for Nu-Way hot dogs to arrive. Bus rides were free all day Thursday, a move expected to cost about $4,000.

Macon-Bibb County Mayor Robert Reichert’s administration agrees with MTA’s call for renewed federal funding, Macon-Bibb spokesman Chris Floore has said. Public transit is essential to revitalizing downtown and getting urban dwellers to and from errands and jobs, Floore said.

Ross said people nationwide took 10.8 billion trips on public transportation last year, a high not seen since the 1950s. Macon has hit the 1 million annual rider mark twice in the last few years.

Jones said national transportation programs really need a permanent, dedicated appropriation, enabling bus services to plan for the future. But at least until after the 2016 election he doesn’t expect Congress to approve more than short, last-minute extensions.

“I think that they’re waiting until May 31 to make that decision,” Jones said.

The federal “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century,” or MAP 21 program, started in 2012 and was supposed to expire in September 2014, after spending $21.3 billion nationwide for transit programs and $40 billion for highway work, according to the American Public Transportation Association. Congress extended it to May 31, but hasn’t provided for any continuation after that date.

“May of 2015 is fast upon us, and we have no transportation funding bill,” Jones said.

The federal program and Macon-Bibb County government evenly split most of the cost of running the transit authority; fares only cover a small portion of the cost, he said.

Losing federal dollars would cause a drastic cutback to bus routes and service, Jones said.

“You’d have to shrink it to almost nothing,” he said. “It would be a disaster.”

Fare increases decrease ridership, usually bringing in less money than lower fares, Jones said.

“I would say that (a fare increase) would be the last step that we would consider,” he said. The most likely to go first would be the routes serving Robins and Geico, Jones has said; the insurance company employs about 5,700.

The fare for a regular one-way trip on MTA is $1.25, with reduced rates for seniors and students. Buses run Monday through Saturday, with some of the 13 routes only running on weekdays. Macon resident Jarris King said she wants to see bus service expand to Sundays, at least covering the 11 a.m.-6 p.m. period. The Georgia summer will soon be too hot for long walks to those locations, and there are not good alternatives, she said.

“If we don’t got the bus, we don’t got nothing,” King said

Taylor said she and King heard of Thursday’s event from MTA drivers, and other riders were talking about it. Cab fares are too much to pay often, said Taylor, who depends on the monthly bus pass, which offers 31 days of unlimited rides for $57.50.

“I ride it all the time,” Taylor said.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.