Advisory committee hears sales tax requests for transit projects

A lagging replacement schedule that has meant cracks are starting to appear in the frames of some buses.


Dozens of bare-bones bus stops where nighttime passengers sometimes have to wave their lighted cellphones at bus drivers to alert them to stop.

A study that has shown it might make sense for the local bus system to move away from its hub-and-spoke system to a more decentralized bus routing scheme.

Those were just some of the reasons that Butch McDuffie, director of Athens Transit, was in front of a citizens advisory committee last week to make the transit system’s case for a share of revenue from a proposed Transportation-Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (TSPLOST), a potential 1 percent levy that will be in front of Athens-Clarke County voters in November.

If the tax is approved, it is projected to raise $104.5 million during its five-year span. Collection of the tax, which would bring the local sales tax rate to 8 percent, would begin in April 2018 if voters OK the levy. A share of the proceeds, $31.4 million, would go to projects already on the books in the county as part of a long-standing and long-range Transportation Improvement Plan.

The deadline for submitting proposals for TSPLOST funding was Feb. 28, and the citizens advisory committee — a 22-member panel comprising two appointees named by Athens-Clarke County Mayor Nancy Denson and each of the 10 Athens-Clarke commissioners — recently began hearing presentations from the local government departments and other entities seeking a share of the money.

Around the middle of next month, the committee will begin weighing the proposals, and will eventually make a list of recommendations to the mayor and commission for projects it deems worthy of a share of TSPLOST dollars. The mayor and commission will make the final decision on the list of projects to be included in the referendum, and there will be opportunities for public input as that process moves forward.

The advisory committee faces a daunting task. The projected cost of the submitted project proposals, ranging from a request for runway improvements at Athens-Ben Epps Airport to a request from the Athens Cultural Affairs Commission for integrating public art into the projects, totals $246 million, more than twice the projected revenue from the yet-to-be-approved 1 percent sales tax.

During its upcoming deliberations, it’s possible that the committee, rather than rejecting a project proposal outright, could ask that that it be scaled back, or could look for opportunities to combine project requests, or could take other steps to pare down the dollar amount of the submitted projects.

An example of how that might work emerged during the Wednesday meeting at which McDuffie made his presentation. Prior to McDuffie’s presentation, representatives of local progressive activist group Athens for Everyone made their case for extending an Athens Transit bus route for the Kroger Marketplace shopping center off U.S. Highway 29 in the northern end of the county into the edge of Madison County.

Athens for Everyone’s representatives contended that extending the route would serve a considerable swath of the county’s minority population, and could provide transportation to a Veterans Administration clinic just across the Athens-Clarke County line in Madison County. Among the major costs for extending the route would be the purchase of a new bus, at a cost of $750,000.

As it turned out, McDuffie — who worked with Athens for Everyone in formulating its request — was in front of the advisory committee on Wednesday, in part, to ask for $4 million to increase the frequency of some Athens Transit routes, most of which run on an hourly schedule. Under questioning from the committee, McDuffie indicated that the frequency expansion initiative could include the project being requested by Athens for Everyone.

Elsewhere in his presentation to the advisory committee, McDuffie asked for more than $13 million to fund a bus replacement program that would also provide for the purchase of some spare buses that could be put into service when other buses are being serviced, when there are special needs for transit services, or in other circumstances when the regular fleet isn’t fully available.

McDuffie told the advisory committee that the requested funding could provide Athens Transit with two or three hybrid-electric buses annually during the five-year run of the TSPLOST. Currently, McDuffie said, the transit system is six years behind in its replacement schedule, and 16 of the system’s 31 buses have been kept in service beyond their useful life. During peak hours, McDuffie said, there are 24 Athens Transit buses on the road.

In addition to the bus replacement request, McDuffie is also seeking funding to upgrade Athens Transit bus stops. Currently, McDuffie said, there are no shelters at 267 of the system’s 384 bus stops. Of the remaining stops, 106 are equipped with covered shelters, and an additional 11 stops are quipped with “art shelters” — artist-designed bus shelters serving as functional pieces of public art for which Athens is known across the nation.

Enhancing the non-sheltered bus stops could, in some cases, prove to be somewhat costly, McDuffie told the committee, because expanding the footprint of the bus stop would require purchasing an easement from the property owners.

“I’m not dissing the arts,” committee member John Jeffreys told McDuffie, but given the number of bus stops that could be improved to include a covered place for people to wait, he said, “just give us a basic cover.”