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T-SPLOST project spotlight: Save GRTA Xpress and save your soul
Anyone who rides MARTA semi-regularly knows to keep eye contact to a minimum and avoid conversation except in the direst circumstance (“Is this Doraville or North Springs?”). It’s not rudeness. It’s just the way one behaves on public transit.
GRTA Xpress, the commuter bus service that shuttles suburbanites to and from the city, is not normal public transit. Maybe the cushy reclining seats foster goodwill. Or maybe the cartoon granny who emails customer service updates makes everyone feel chummy. But GRTA riders have formed knitting clubs and monthly dinner groups (called “Bus Buddies”; adorable, right?). They exchange gifts on Christmas. One group even goes on cruises.
"We think [the camaraderie] plays a part in why the customer satisfaction is so high," says Matt Markham, GRTA’s chief government and public affairs officer. "Over 90 percent of our riders say they either 'love' or 'really like' the Xpress service."
But there’s trouble in paradise. The Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, a state agency, launched the service eight years ago with an infusion of startup funds that have since run out and no long-term funding plan. Currently subsisting on "gap-year" funding, Xpress is hanging its hat on the July 31 transportation referendum. If approved, the penny sales tax will cover operating costs for ten years.
If the referendum fails, GRTA will petition for state and local dollars on a year-to-year basis and face a "pretty good deal of uncertainty," says Jannine Miller, the agency’s executive director. GDOT planning director Todd Long was less optimistic in a meeting last year with transportation roundtable members: "The state is not going to pick up the cost of Xpress. They will shut down Xpress" (via Saporta Report).
The irony of Atlanta bailing out a state transit operation will not be lost on DeKalb and Fulton residents, who have long paid a separate MARTA tax while the state pledges nary a penny. It is perhaps the most glaring example of the need for regional transit governance. (Check out Creative Loafing’s editorial on the topic.)
But the thousands who depend on Xpress should not be punished for ugly politics. I think of my coworker, who would not have moved to Newnan three years ago if it weren’t for the service. And what of the poor souls stuck on already-clogged Williams Street? GRTA estimates Xpress takes 10 percent of cars off Downtown Connector exit ramps at rush hour.
The Newnan route, by the way, lost a popular driver last spring. Robert Fischer was known to be chatty and occasionally abuse the intercom by, for example, counting the days to his birthday. When the day arrived, he stopped at Mama Mia’s near the Capitol and bought pizza for the whole bus. After he died in a motorcycle accident, a group of riders attended his memorial service.