Bus riders look for alternatives
Carpools may be started after transit fare increase

LAWRENCEVILLE - Days after transit fares were increased by $50 a month for some riders, commuters on the county's express bus system said they'll look to carpool to work - partly as a form of protest, and partly because they can no longer afford the fares.

They complained that Gwinnett's new $150 monthly ticket for zone 2 riders prices the system out of use, putting it well above the cost of 31-day tickets on Cobb County's system - which sell for $90 - and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority's, which sell for $80.

But Gwinnett's transit director said the county is just trying to bring the portion that bus riders pay for the service closer to the amount that non-riders pay in taxes, subsidizing the system.

"When we calculate it, it's not based on the price fare, it's based on the proportion of fare box returns," Transit Director Phil Boyd said. "Everyone's been pretty consistent in saying that users ought to pay their fair share. It's not really any more complicated than that."

In Gwinnett, express riders pay 27 percent of the cost of running the service at the fare box, Boyd said, while local riders pay 25 percent. Boyd said the fare increase aims to put the express percentage at 30.1 percent and the local at 28 percent.

GRTA recovers 27.8 percent of its costs at the fare box and Cobb collected 23 percent of its costs that way, before raising 31-day passes by $20 in November.

Rebecca Gutowsky, Cobb County's transit manager, said Cobb also aims to collect about 30 percent at the fare box.

But a consistent percentage among transit providers is little consolation to Debra Barnes-Homer, a Department of Labor employee who has ridden the bus to work from Discover Mills for the past year.

"I can't afford it," she said. "I've got to make alternate arrangements - carpool, vanpool, something. Everybody here at the Department of Labor is trying to figure out something different."

Barnes-Homer and Shannon Whitworth, a commuter who takes the bus downtown from Snellville, both said they were disappointed with the decision, which increases local bus fares from $1.75 to $2 and raises one-way fares on routes 101, 103, 412 and 418 to $4, from $3.

Ten-ride passes on those routes will cost $40, with $150 monthly pass rates. Riders on routes 102 and 410 will pay $3 for one-way fares, $30 for 10-ride passes and $100 for monthly passes.

Whitworth said she will continue riding the bus to work, despite the increase, because she worries about air pollution and congestion on the roads. She also intends to help pay for the tickets of a friend who will no longer be able to afford the service once the increase takes effect in August - and would otherwise have no way to get to work.

While the Loganville resident understands that transit commuters are a small part of the population, Whitworth said she feels like she and others are being punished by county commissioners for working in Atlanta.

"We bring money back to Gwinnett County," she said. "It's like we're doing something wrong by working downtown."

Although Whitworth said she actually finds transit inconvenient in the extra time it takes her to get to the Snellville park-and-ride lot, she said some fellow commuters have talked about driving further, outside of Gwinnett, to pay less on GRTA or other routes.

William Mecke, a GRTA spokesman, said inconsistent fares among local transit providers is a challenge for the region. A number of groups have been talking for years about creating a consistent fare structure, but no conversations are currently taking place.

The recent introduction of the Breeze card could make that possible, Mecke said, but some kinks are still being worked out in the system. Local governments would also have to agree on whether to raise or lower fares.

Because GRTA's mission is to improve air quality and mobility, Mecke said even commuters who leave the bus system for carpools are making a difference by deciding to stay away from cars with no passengers.

Transit, though, is a large part of the region's system, he said. Although 300,000 vehicles travel on the Downtown Connector each day, 500,000 throughout the region make transit trips daily as well.

"How would you like all of those people back on the roads?" Mecke said. "It would substantially add to the burden of the road network. It's all a matter of how we choose to use our infrastructure."

Other concerns for Gwinnett's hike include the fact that the federal tax benefit for commuters is only $115, meaning riders would need to pay taxes on the additional $35 fare each month.

But Boyd, Gwinnett's transit director, said the change is just a matter of policy and is the county's attempt to keep the 30 percent fare box rate consistent. The new numbers take the fact that some people will leave the system into account, he said.

This is the first time rates have been raised in Gwinnett during the six-year-old system's existence. In the future, rates will be reassessed annually.

"We expect some people to make other choices," Boyd said. "We just can't look at what the rate is, we have to look at the proportion of revenues it brings in in relation to ridership."