Issues In Focus: A Visit to Athens Transit

Last week, the Fellowship team had the pleasure of meeting with Athens Transit director, Butch McDuffie. After learning more about Athens Transit’s unique citizen engagement and incredibly efficient service, there was no doubt from any of us that Athens Transit indeed deserved its 2016 Urban Community Transit of the Year award. In addition to describing all the things that makes his system great, McDuffie explained to us some of the legislative and political setbacks that prevent Athens Transit from becoming an even greater service to Athens.

The numerous benefits of riding a public transit system include being cost-efficient, eco-friendly and can contribute to decreasing traffic. Yet, people often choose other means of transportation because many systems across the nation are unreliable or simply unpleasant to ride. This is not the case in Athens. In fact, Athens boasts the fourth highest riders per capita out of any city in the United States. McDuffie explained to us that because of Athens Transit’s exceptional service, Athenians ride the buses because they want to, not because they have to. McDuffie attributed this service to the hard-working employees of the transit system and the convenient routes, which were drawn using formulas that ensure optimal efficiency. Despite all of its success, McDuffie believes the transit system would benefit from a few changes enacted by the legislators under the Gold Dome.

One problem currently afflicting Georgia transit systems is that when it comes to securing government funds, smaller systems are at an immense disadvantage compared to their metropolitan counterparts. Under the current procedure, all Georgia transit systems compete with one another to earn federal dollars. Systems like Athens Transit must use the Georgia Department of Transportation as a middleman while metro Atlanta systems are large enough to talk directly with federal agencies. This makes it more difficult to earn funds because GDOT’s primary focus is the development of roads, not transit systems. McDuffie believes the solution to this problem is for the Georgia legislature to create a statewide body that represents all local transit systems in discussions with the federal government. This would ensure that all systems, no matter their size, have a voice when it comes to receiving funds. McDuffie believes that there are more flaws in the current system, but none too great to be alleviated by quality legislation.

Athens Transit exemplifies the importance of well-run public services within a community by providing over 1.7 million rides per year to satisfied customers. It is safe to say that if more systems across the country ran as efficiently as the one right here in Athens, there would be less vehicular pollution, more people would save money on transportation and there would be less traffic on our roadways. Challenges, like the ones McDuffie addressed, prevent that from happening. The success of a transit system ultimately depends on the level of commitment from the community and people like McDuffie.

We are certainly proud of our local transit team’s hard work!