Athens Transit – A Model for Mid-Sized Municipalities

Athens has been ranked the 4th most used transit system in the nation that follows only the New York City, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. areas [1]. Athens-Clarke County is a leader in transportation services by efficiently serving all members of the Athens community including, but not limited to, those who are disabled or mobility-impaired, bikers, and students. In 2016, the Athens Transit System (ATS) received the Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA) Urban Community Transportation System of the Year Award [2]. Highlights that contributed to this honor include a bus-riding education program for people who are at risk of losing driving privileges, its partnership with UGA’s EITS to live-track buses for UGA students through the mobile app, the launch of bus services on Sunday, and a youth ridership program that allows people 17 years of age or younger to ride for free over the summer [3]

Soon after Athens Transit received its award, the Georgia Transit Association (GTA) named Butch McDuffie, director of Athens Transit for over 15 years, the 2016 Outstanding Manager of the Year [4]. According to GTA president Robert Hiett, McDuffie worked with the Georgia state legislature, the Federal Transit Administration, the Georgia Department of Transportation, and many local communities to educate the public, craft legislation and find alternative funding for Georgia’s public transit systems [5]. Since Georgia is one of five states that doesn’t allocate money to help cover operating expenses of local transit systems, ATS gains revenue from the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (TSPLOST). 

Since 1991, when Athens Transit received the American Public Transportation Association’s award as the Outstanding Public Transportation System Achievement from [6], ATS has transitioned 100% of all buses to be accessible for the mobility impaired, to include bicycle racks and to have live tracking for the public. They have also improved almost 500 bus stops and shelters. By the end of 2019, all bus stops were enhanced with paved areas, seating, bus shelters, art shelters, landscaping, and route information [7]. Developing the safety and appearance of bus stops appeals to the public eye and reduces the stigma around public transportation which may encourage increased ridership. In an effort to move Athens towards 100% renewable energy, ATS has allowed senior citizens, disabled, and government employees to utilize the transit services for free since July 1, 2019 [8]

An expanded fare-free service would include all Athens residents [9]. This initiative would reduce the amount of air pollution and road congestion as well as free up parking spots by encouraging more people to use public transportation. According to a report published by Athens for Everyone, “The American Public Transportation Association estimates that every $1 invested in public transportation generates approximately $4 in economic returns,” suggesting that investment in public transportation can be a huge indicator for economic growth of local economies [10]

If Athens adopts this fare-free system, the Athens-Clarke Transit System would save money from the process of counting fare money and the maintenance of fare boxes. With a poverty rate of 38%, the residents of Athens-Clarke County that are below the poverty line would also save money, between $1,029 to $1,277 annually (depending on the type of pass obtained) [11]. This money can then be spent on other necessities, or on consumption, which would boost the local and state governments’ tax revenue [12]

Despite the benefits of fare-free transit, it is still not supported by local or state governments. Governments are reluctant to allocate money to transit services in an effort to keep the systems self-sustaining. For example, Athens-Clarke County’s total government revenues increased $16.8 million in fiscal year 2017, while the local government also cut the budget for Athens Transit by $734,000 in fiscal year 2018 [13]. This, combined with historic cuts to night service, has made it difficult to implement fare-free transit.

Furthermore, the Complete Streets policy intends to improve transportation infrastructure to ensure safe mobility, access, and travel for the public. Unfortunately, the policy’s restrictions on resurfacing projects limit improvements for bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users [14]

Recently, however, there have been improvements to the Athens Transit System to help address transportation limitations. As part of ACC’s Transit Development Plan, ACC Commission approved changes to certain bus routes. As of July 1, 2018, route 5 and route 7 of Athens Transit have been altered to increase accessibility to public transportation for people in the areas near Jefferson Road and Whitehead Road [15]. Transit Administration Director Butch McDuffie explains that these changes incorporate two miles of new service routing to areas that have not previously been able to benefit from public transportation. Additionally, route 7 will have extended evening and weekend servicing to better serve the population in the areas it now reaches [16].

Everyone needs a reliable mode of transportation regardless of age or socio-economic status. For those who rely on public transportation, an efficient system must be intact to ensure that all citizens have access to the same opportunities in the community. Equally, the local and state government should continue to support the transportation system and recognize the importance of reliable public transit as one of the foundations for economic prosperity. Athens Transit undoubtedly provides quality public transportation and ultimately serves as a model of transportation for mid-sized municipalities nationwide.

Written by: Sophia Tarragó