Clayton’s C-TRAN remains on death row as FTA denies funds

By Maria Saporta

Bad, bad news.

As a prisoner on death row, C-TRAN, the bus service in Clayton County, has lost another appeal to stay alive beyond March 31.

The Federal Transit Administration, in a letter to U.S. Rep. David Scott (D-Atlanta) is denying to review of its earlier decision to permit C-TRAN to use a pot of federal funds to turn over some of the bus operation to the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority.

Scott had written a letter on March 15 urging the FTA to allow the use of Congestion Mitigation Air Quality Funds to allow GRTA to initiate its Xpress buses on at least some of C-Tran’s routes.

Yvette Taylor, the FTA’s regional administrator, wrote to Scott saying: “The FTA is fully aware of the hardship facing your affected constituents in Clayton County caused by the County Commission’s decision to terminate all C-TRAN bus services effective April 1, 2010. The FTA finds this situation untenable.”

But Taylor added that the GRTA solution is not acceptable because GRTA “has not provided a financial plan to demonstrate the long-term viability of the service. The financial plan is required to ensure that the temporary use of CMAQ funds lead to continued and viable transit service for the public.”

Again, the problem that Georgia and its transit agencies still haven’t figured out a way to provide sustainable operating support for public transportation. GRTA and other bus services have taken advantage of federal funds to start up transit operations, but they haven’t come up with a long-term financial plan to keep those systems running after the federal dollars run out.

It’s hard to believe that the local and state governments — from the Clayton County Commission, GRTA, the Georgia Department of Transportation and all the other alphabet soup of agencies — have not come up with a solution to keep C-TRAN in business after March 31.

Thousands of daily riders who depend on C-TRAN will be left without a means of public transportation to get to their jobs or schools or to take care of their family’s needs.

We are region that needs to be encouraging greater use of transit as a way to relieve congestion, improve air quality and promote more sustainable developments that aren’t dependent on the automobiles. But instead, we seem to keep slipping backwards.

Where are the leaders in our state and our region and in Clayton County who should be coming up with solutions rather than sitting on the sidelines?

For the record, Clayton County Chairman Eldrin Bell was the one commissioner to vote for continued funding of C-TRAN. And obviously Rep. Scott is doing what he can. But C-TRAN’s countdown clock continues to tick-tock to its death.

Even the FTA’s Taylor, in her letter, seemed frustrated at the lack of enlightened leadership in our region and in Clayton County.

“The FTA continues to stand ready to assist Clayton County,” Taylor wrote, “if the Commission can provide the local financial support that is required to move forward and not allow the transit-dependent riders to be victims to a political process they cannot control.”

Is anybody listening?

Here is FTA’s letter to U.S. Rep. David Scott; (you’ll need to keep clicking on the links):

CMAQ Letter

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

19 replies
  1. Yr1215 says:

    Afraid C-tran needs to be shut down. There’s not the population density or the revenue generation ability for C-tran to make the least amount of economic sense.

    Residents will find transportation alternatives, or move, or change jobs to areas offering public transit (ie Atlanta-Fulton-Dekalb) if they need it.

    C-tran needs to go, but Atlanta and DeKalb need to continue to invest in system expansion as they have the requisite population density and ridership necessary for transit to succeed.Report

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  2. Maria Saporta says:

    Yr1215,
    Thanks for your comment, but I just have to disagree.
    This region needs MORE transit, not less. The argument that C-TRAN does not make economic sense because there’s not the population density or revenue generation in Clayton County misses the point that C-TRAN is one spoke in the wheel of creating a regional transit system.
    Perhaps Clayton really needs some kind of rail transportation (voting to join MARTA by passing a one-cent sales tax would be a good place to start). But transit, be it bus or rail, is the only way we will be able to develop sustainable communities that can give life to our historic and emerging town centers.
    MariaReport

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  3. supainsf says:

    Would agree, I think this is again unfortunately an embarrassment for the state of Georgia and another example where policymakers have not had their act together in terms of transportation. Granted, C-TRAN may not be glamorous, nor is it a sleek commuter rail, but it provides a lifeline for many individuals in the county to access jobs, amenities, and opportunity among other things.

    The mode share in Clayton County is likely already very high for those who drive, which is a reflection of an inequity in providing for multiple modes of transportation. By cutting C-TRAN service, this only assures that the county will be reliant on one mode and one mode of travel only, into the future, as congestion, fuel prices, and concerns about the environment continue to increase.

    For those who are dependent on C-TRAN or individuals who may not be able to drive or choose not to drive, will literally be left on the curb by their county. These people are working class individuals, who will now be forced to leave the county for elsewhere that can provide theses basic services.

    Furthermore, in a time when job creation is top priority, and we know for a fact that dollar per dollar, transit investments produce more jobs as compared to road investments, why are we still so slow to make improvements? and in the case of C-TRAN, actually digress from the status quo.Report

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  4. Yr1215 says:

    Maria, I don’t disagree with your point about the value of a network and regional transportation. However, the systems have to partially support themselves, and not just for 20% of the cost. Of course, if you raise ticket prices for Ctran (say, double), it is likely that very few people would continue to use it.

    Transit really does make sense (balancing subsidies in return for reduced congestion), but only for places with high population density and congestion. Clayton has neither of these, to my knowledge.

    supainsf – I’m afraid you have a lot of misstatements. To begin with, transit doesn’t create more jobs than roads when all the benefits are taken into account. Second, while I’m all for helping those in need, people do know how to move and relocate to the places that best serve their needs. I’m sure someone in Americus would love a bus or train to run to Atlanta, but it doesn’t make a lick of financial sense. Transit has to make some semblance of financial sense (meaning it doesn’t cost a fortune and require 100% subsidies). Unfortunately, that is the case in Clayton. They have real financial problems and $10 million can do a lot of things other than move a couple thousand people around. It could educate several thousand children better, or improve highly used roads, or invest in their sewer system, or provide a needed tax cut to the Clayton tax payer. Either way, putting $10 million into a system very few use or wish to pay for doesn’t make sense. If Clayton wants it, then they can elect a government that will pay for it and cut $10 million out of the budget of something else (social services, or the aforementioned ideas).

    We’re in a world of trade-offs. There are no free lunches. Clayton has decided Ctrans isn’t worth the cost. That’s democracy.Report

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  5. Yr1215 says:

    Oh yes, $10 million could also buy a lot of economic development incentives (or lower taxes to attract those jobs) for businesses to locate in Clayton. And if I had to guess, the residents in Clayton would love more jobs above anything else.Report

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  6. supainsf says:

    Yr1215,

    To address your concerns with some of my statements, in looking at analysis of stimulus funds, it was shown that transit funds did in fact create more jobs. Feel free to reference that study here:
    http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/stimulus2009.html

    With regard to transportation spending, to compare $10 million, and putting that into alternative programs such as education, is a fair argument. However, unrealistic. If we were to look at the road repaving schedule for the county, $10 million could be as easily be taken from that pool of funds. Which goes to the larger statement, roads aren’t free either, by a long shot.

    $10 million may not make financial “sense”, but then what does? infrastructure and transportation service isn’t a money maker, in any city, it provides citizens a foundation to access jobs and carry out their everyday lives.Report

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  7. Chris says:

    Yr1215,

    I don’t know where you are getting your density numbers from, but clayton county is more dense than cobb county. The county is just smaller. The county is definitely fit for a public transportation system. Having a transit system in a county with the density of clayton is a no brainer. One thing you said is correct though. The residents will have to get out and vote in commissioners who will invest in their county and in their residents in a manner that serves clayton best.Report

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  8. Yr1215 says:

    Chris, technically you’re wrong. Cobb’s density is 2,060 people per square mile and Clayton’s is 1,910. That said, the differences are marginal, let’s call it a tie. And more to your point, there are counties with lower overall densities that still offer bus transit in limited areas with higher density. Chatham County / Savannah comes to mind.

    I would still argue they should only serve areas with significantly higher density, perhaps with a scaled back operation. Oh well.

    Although this is food for thought: $10 million could be used for $5,000 new hiring tax credits for 2,000 NEW JOBS. EVERY YEAR. Given the choice, I bet the voters would go for the jobs incentives.

    I guess we can agree on this: at the end of the day, its their decision.Report

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  9. Yr1215 says:

    Supainsf, you are correct on DIRECT jobs created by transit versus roads (because for transit, someone has to work on it forever after it is built, and it does require more jobs and cost to build, whereas roads are cheaper to build and no one has to do anything other than clean them after). But I have zero doubt that if you include all the additional benefits related to economic development, roads come out on top by a margin of 20 to 1. Transit agencies have to almost give away land near their transit stops to get developers to build there. Every time roads are built that open and serve new areas, the sheer number of new developments, retail, businesses, etc. are mind boggling. I’m not pro sprawl, but the facts speak for themselves. Compare Atlanta and Dallas (which never stopped its road building binge). Their economies are very similar (whereas a Houston-Atlanta comparison wouldn’t make any sense), but Dallas’ unemployment is 8.4% and Atlanta’s is 10.5%. Truth is, Atlanta pretty much stopped major road building after the Northern Arc was killed. The two are directly linked because our citizens spend millions of hours sitting in congestion because of the lack of new road building (Northern Arc, toll, or otherwise). That directly translates into lost productivity, income, and economic growth.

    I’m pro transit, but let’s not confuse ourselves over the real facts here. We need more transit, but we also desperately need new roads (preferably Toll roads in my book). Our world also needs fewer ideologues and more practical realists.Report

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  10. Yr1215 says:

    To the larger issue with density:

    Compare DC and Atlanta, cities of roughly the same size and roughly the same transit systems (and the same rail technology).

    City / Density (people per square mile)
    DC: 9,800
    Atlanta: 4,000
    Cobb: 2,000
    Clayton: 1,900

    It is fair to say rail transit starts to work well when you get above 8,000 ppsm. Bus transit is about half that, if you want it to support itself, so around 4,000.

    All the transit supporters are focused on creating more transit supply, when what transit needs to work is more demand. Which means more density.

    Transit proponents, and Atlanta (the city anyway), North Fulton, and Dekalb, should be focusing on pushing their density numbers up if they want more transit. Which means being pro-development, which most of them are not. Atlanta needs to DOUBLE its density. You tell me which of our city planners and elected officials are focused on getting the zoning in place to accomodate another 600,000 residents in the city and 2 million in the overall inner core….

    Point being, if you want transit, go lobby for higher density and more liberal (lower regulation) zoning laws. This would also have the nice side benefit of creating more affordable housing, without the need for inefficient government subsidies.

    As an example: one might argue that all land within 1 mile (walking distance) of the new Atlanta beltline and every MARTA train station should be rezoned to a 10 FAR (you could build 10 stories tall over the land footprint). Every NPU, every member of the tree commission, and every NIMBYite in Atlanta would have a coronary. So, no higher density, no new transit. So as my diatribe continues, the problem with transit are the people who live near transit. Funny problem, eh?Report

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  11. supainsf says:

    While I could agree that there is a point about direct jobs, but I think your comments are trying to convolute too many different things in making a point.

    There are clear difference in operating and capital costs, yes. In looking at the roads versus transit comparison, the capital costs for starting a transit system are considerably higher than building roads because of rolling stock, transit operations clearly has direct costs due to operators, staff, ridership, but roadway operating costs are not negligible due to repair, repaving, and cleaning as you mention. However, in Clayton, you compare building new roads versus maintaining current service. The marginal benefit per dollar in this comparison would come out in favor of providing transit service.

    With regard to economic development, I would agree there is a direct correlation with ACCESS to economic development, however, a comparison of 20-1 is a bit far fetched. This is making the strong assumption that development and development dollars are directly tied to road building, which it is not. No one said that C-TRAN was spurring development in the county, but I honestly doubt that road building there would necessarily do the same. The transit-oriented development notion would not apply in Clayton as there are no high-capacity services.

    On a separate comment on your Dallas/Atlanta/Houston examples, while Dallas may have invested in new roads, they have also invested in regional transit, commuter rail, and heavily backed transit-oriented development around their DART stations (mockingbird station in particular). Comparing their unemployment to their road building is also a bit of a logical leap.

    Also, Dallas wouldn’t have the C-Trans problem because their funding mechanism is region-wide, not partitioned off by the urban core. Additionally, an assumption that road building reduces congestion is simply not true, unless it is as you suggested, tolled to meter demand, this is due to induced demand. But, this is getting off topic.

    Being a pragmatist, I fully understand the need for roadways and good links for transportation. In addition, I understand that it’s their decision and financial pressures to make ends meet in this day and age are real. Yet, in the long-term, cutting a foundational component to jobs access and eliminating service for 1.7 million trips annually is not a good solution, and I would beg to find any metropolitan county in the United States that has justifiably done the same.Report

    Reply
  12. Yr1215 says:

    I don’t think we disagree as much as you might think. I am aware that Dallas has invested in transit, kudos for them (no sarcasm). And I am aware asphalt roads have to be repaved at least every 20 years, if not less, increasing their life cycle cost.

    That said, we do have one point of significant disagreement. And that is on this statement: “This is making the strong assumption that development and development dollars are directly tied to road building, which it is not.”

    I think you can go ask any developer (or urban economics professor) how much development is tied to road building, and 99.9% of them will say that economic development is strongly tied to road building. Compare China and India. To claim economic development and road construction aren’t highly connected is just not factual.

    Now, having said that, mass transit can also spur development IF that transit is highly used. Alas, in Atlanta it is not.

    One other point you and others seem to believe (re “cutting a foundational component to jobs access”). You seem to believe people are incapable of moving. People move every day, every hour, and every year to where the jobs are, where the cost of living suits their lifestyle, or for any of a laundry list of reasons. To assume that these people are immobile and somehow glued to the ground and will fall off the face of the earth because of the end of Ctran is also just a false assumption and does a discredit to the intelligence of the people who use Ctran. People will move, people will find new jobs, people will go to where transit is offered if they don’t have and can’t afford a car. Necessity is the mother of invention.

    Transit will have its day in Clayton. Just not now (unless of course the residents elect a different government in office willing to continue the massive subsidy).

    Since I’m sure we could go at this all day, someone ought to find an alternative way of settling these arguments. Maybe something like Seinfeld’s Marriage Ref. I guess elections do that too, in a less comical and probably less intelligent manner.Report

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  13. Yr1215 says:

    Caveat to my last sentence, less it get misconstrued. Elections (ie the people) are better at making decisions than a politburo of planners or a czar or dictator. They’re just still not very good at it. AKA, Democracy is the worst form of government, next to all others.Report

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  14. ACC 12 Booster says:

    Maria,
    Clayton County’s failure to “go to bat” for C-Tran isn’t about density or funding, it’s about trying to dissuade low-income residents from relocating to and living in Clayton County.

    The Clayton County Commission and other selected powers that be in Clayton County aren’t in the least bit interested in funding and operating any kind of mass transit in the county, especially bus service that serves and supports low-income riders and residents. The Commission calls itself trying to play down and not feed its well-known reputation as being one of the top local migration destinations for low-income residents affected by the recent shutdowns of public housing projects in the City of Atlanta. So-called well-heeled members of Clayton County “high(er)-society” are doing all that they can to stop being a top destination for low-income migrants from the City of Atlanta and also from other highly-urbanized parts of the country (New York, Michigan, California, Florida, Louisiana, etc.).

    The decision by the Clayton County Commissioners not to fund continued operations of C-Tran is, by their logic, meant to send a message to future low-income residents not to come to Clayton County. The decision is also meant to send a message to current low-income residents to leave and make way for higher-income relocatees. The powers-that-be in Clayton County wants the county to become as popular of a destination for higher-income upper-middle and upper-class African-Americans as DeKalb County and parts of Gwinnett, Fulton, Rockdale and Henry Counties have been in recent years.Report

    Reply
  15. ACC 12 Booster says:

    Yr1215:
    “Afraid C-tran needs to be shut down. There’s not the population density or the revenue generation ability for C-tran to make the least amount of economic sense. Residents will find transportation alternatives, or move, or change jobs to areas offering public transit (ie Atlanta-Fulton-Dekalb) if they need it. C-tran needs to go, but Atlanta and DeKalb need to continue to invest in system expansion as they have the requisite population density and ridership necessary for transit to succeed.”

    Yr1215, that’s not entirely true about the density in the areas that C-Tran currently serves. The limited service that C-Tran provides is heavily utilized as C-Tran buses are quite often filled to full or beyond capacity. It’s just that Clayton County doesn’t levy a sales tax to support the system and is unwilling to consider either a new tax like the one that Fulton and DeKalb Counties have in place now or a raise in fares from the $1.50 that C-Tran riders currently pay. When asked if they were willing to pay higher fares to support the continued operation of the system, many C-Tran riders stated they would be willing to pay a fare of up to $3.00 or beyond to keep the buses going, so a fare increase, even a substantial one, at the very least, shouldn’t be out of consideration to keep the system going. The Clayton County Commission’s unwillingness to even consider a fare-increase or to deal with the issue in any meaningful way except to vote the system out of existence says alot about their intentions as many of those commissioners in the past have stated that they have no desire to manage or operate a public bus or transportation system in Clayton County. C-Tran’s financial problems provided a convenient excuse for the county to get out of the transit business, a business they wanted no responsiblity for running. By the commission’s logic anyway, a public transportation system like C-Tran just feeds the stigma of the county being a destination for low-income African-Americans from around the country as opposed to being a destination for high-income African-Americans as they would like to be.Report

    Reply
  16. Yr1215 says:

    Thanks for the insight ACC12. Politics are always at the core of these decisions.

    Assuming you are correct, I don’t think their tactic is going to work very well. Their problem is their schools, not their transit.Report

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  17. ACC 12 Booster says:

    Yr1215, their problem is their governance and competence, or lack thereof. The problem with their schools came about because they were too incompetent to run their schools in a coherent manner although alot of that has to do with the change in the socioeconomic demographics of the county over the last couple of decades. During this time, Clayton County has been a community in transition from a majority-white suburban county populated by higher-income airline and airport employees to being a majority-black community populated by lower-income airport employees that is more like a district of urban Atlanta than the outlying community of a suburban and exurban nature of its past.

    During this transition from suburban to urban, farther outlying communities like Fayette and Henry Counties became magnets for higher-income whites and blacks and attracted those higher-income residents out of Clayton which became much more transient community in that it became a dumping ground for low-income residents forced out of closed Atlanta housing projects and a destination for lower-income blacks from other parts of the U.S. As the people with high-incomes moved out and the county became more transient with the lower-income residents that moved in from the City of Atlanta and other parts of the country who were not as involved with or interested in local politics, a power vacuum was created where, for example, people like the lawsuit-inducing former Sheriff Victor Hill and groups of very amatuerish power-hungry politicos like the ones that have been seen in recent years on the Riverdale City Council, the Clayton County Commission and, especially, the Clayton County School Board were able to step in seize positions of power with little meaningful opposition.

    The Clayton County Commission and the powers that be in that community are very much mistaken if they think that discontinuing bus service is the way for the county to stop being a destination for lower-income blacks. Stopping the bus service in the short-term and long-term will serve only run away lower-income residents with jobs and attract more lower-income residents without jobs, i.e. criminals. All of those mature single-family homes, rental properties and apartment complexes that are now filled with lower-income service job employees will be emptied by people with jobs seeking to move closer to a transit line and become semi-abandoned breeding grounds for drugs and prostitution inhabited by drug-pushers and drug-addled prostitutes.

    Don’t think it can happen? It’s already happening in Clayton County now, just take a ride through North Clayton County and witness some of the partially abandoned, heavily patrolled and clearly-declining apartment complexes along main throughfares like Riverdale Road, Garden Walk Boulevard and Upper Riverdale Road. Not to even mention the some of the dingey cheap roadside extended stay apartments and motels along Tara Boulevard, Highway 85 and Old Dixie Road, to name a few that have become havens for homeless families with little to no resources to obtain more permanent housing.Report

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  18. Yr1215 says:

    Thanks again for the additional information. While I agree with most of what you say, my previous points were highlighting the general problem of demand and the resulting ramifications on Ctran. If transit was self-sustaining, either this would not be a problem or the private sector would take care of it. Since it isn’t self sustaining, it is more subject to political whim. Transit, even in high density environments, is not self-sustaining, therefore it at least makes sense to plan these services where they cost the least (economically), and serve the most people.

    Of course, also at the core of the problem, as you said, is Clayton governmental incompetence driven by some tough demographics. All were facts of which I was already aware. Clayton’s decline and problems are apparent to anyone with an hour available to drive through the area. Thanks for adding a lot of insight to the discussion.Report

    Reply
  19. Maria Saporta says:

    Readers,

    This has been a fabulous discussion where once again the readers of SaportaReport have managed to take a topic, share widely disparate views and through thoughtful discourse gotten to the the core issues involved.

    If only our leaders — in state government, in the region and especially in Clayton County — could have such a mature debate and exchange of ideas.

    The final line of Yr1215’s last comment says it all: “Thanks for adding a lot of insight to the discussion.”

    Let me ditto that comment and thank all of you for weighing in.

    Maria

    P.S. I’m still hoping some knight in shining armor will emerge by Wednesday to keep C-TRAN from shutting down its operations.Report

    Reply

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