COVID-19 spells lost fares and rough ride for Georgia’s public transit

MARTA’s trains carried just 1.2 million passengers to stations in DeKalb and Fulton counties in April, down from about 5.2 million in April 2019. A MARTA train arrived late Tuesday morning to a nearly empty Arts Center station in Atlanta. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

Clarification: An editing error omitted Clayton County from MARTA’s coverage area.

Bus engines still drone each morning over the quiet conversations of commuters at CobbLinc’s South Marietta Parkway transfer station, but the rush hour crowds common a few months ago no longer gather outside to wait for buses.

Larenze Walker was among them earlier this month, scrolling on his phone as he waited for the bus to take him to his job at Marietta’s Tip Top Poultry plant. It was about 6:30 a.m., and Walker was halfway through his daily two-hour commute from Atlanta.

When his bus came, Walker entered through the back doors, skipping the fare box up front, to help minimize contact with the driver. Transit agencies around the state are using similar workarounds since COVID-19 cases spiked in Georgia.

Walker is like many Georgians with essential jobs who rely on Georgia’s 17 urban transit systems. Those public agencies gave Georgians more than 140 million rides in 2017, according to the Georgia Department of Transportation.

But as businesses shut down in mid-March and fears of the coronavirus spread, the state’s locally run public transportation system contracted and frequent riders followed the governor’s orders to stay home. The state’s transit operators and transportation experts say a continuation of recent federal relief is essential to keep buses and trains rolling despite the sudden drop in riders so they’ll be ready when more commuters return to work.

Georgia’s largest transit system is MARTA, serving three metro Atlanta counties with about 2 million people and a region of millions more far beyond. MARTA’s trains carried just 1.2 million passengers this April, down 75% from 5.2 million in 2019. Bus ridership fell by half to 2.2 million riders this April compared to 4.4 million in April 2019. 

Buses are rolling down empty streets with empty seats in communities large and small across Georgia. The Macon-Bibb County Transit Authority system says it carried 25,000 riders this April, down 45% from last April. Gwinnett County now allows only 15 passengers on a bus at a time and trips dropped to 48,000 riders this April compared to nearly 88,000 last year.

In Albany, one of the state’s COVID-19 hotspots, buses make sanitizing side trips to stations every three hours, leading to delays in some routes. City commissioner Chad Warbington said the commission might add plastic barriers around drivers for added safety.

The Albany Transit System’s ridership dropped in March and April, prompting cuts in service. It is now adding some of those routes back, but riders are still wary about climbing inside a confined space and breathing the same air as lots of strangers.

“There’s definitely caution,” he said. “I would say our economy in Albany has been a little slower to open back up as compared to the rest of the state of Georgia, just because we were a hotspot. But definitely, there’s caution.”

Outside of the cities, Georgia’s 82 rural systems provided nearly 1.8 million trips in 2017.

Nine of those rural systems suspended service entirely, the state DOT said. Most that still carry passengers are helping people keep doctor appointments and make other needed trips.

Riders, fare revenues vanish

Workers who rely on public transportation to get to jobs in Georgia’s hotel and travel business this time of year are staying home and their financial pain increased as the cash flow from transit fare boxes fell.

Georgia’s transit agencies are suspending fares, mandating backdoor entry to avoid driver interaction and limiting the number of riders allowed on buses. All of that severely cuts revenues, said Georgia Institute of Technology associate professor of civil and environmental engineering Kari Watkins.

“Farebox revenue, on average, pays for 40% of transit services, some are more or less than that, but if you’ve zeroed that out, it means 40% of your operating budget is now gone,” she said.

Advertisements both inside and outside buses and trains, are another major source of cash for transit agencies and those are also drying up as businesses try to save money, she said.

“If companies are having trouble staying afloat, they’re not going to spend money on advertising right now, and certainly not inside of a mostly empty bus,” she said.

‘Nobody’s getting hazard pay’

Transit systems in metro Atlanta are set to receive close to $371 million from the federal CARES Act to help cover financial losses, part of $25 billion intended for transit agencies around the country.

Georgia’s other urban transit systems  are expected to receive $76.2 million, and the state’s rural transit agencies are to split $74.4 million.

Britt Dunams, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 732, which represents about 3,000 transit workers in Fulton, Cobb and Gwinnett counties, said some of that money needs to go to bus drivers, who are on the front lines of the pandemic, making sure other essential workers can do what they need to do.

“Nobody’s getting hazard pay, they don’t have a pandemic leave process that’s in place, so individuals have to pay themselves to be in self quarantine,” he said. “So the money is not being allocated as what it has been designed for.”

The line that serves this MARTA bus stop in Atlanta is shut down due to the lingering effects of COVID-19 stay-home orders. On Tuesday, shattered glass covered the ground at the bus shelter. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

Still, while the infusion of CARES money is a welcome boost, it might not be enough to return the trains and buses to the same schedule and routes of a few months ago, said MARTA General Manager and CEO Jeffrey Parker.

Last week, Parker joined with heads of other major U.S. transit agencies to request an additional $33 billion in aid for the nation’s transit agencies.

“Additional federal relief will be needed for MARTA to maintain its current level of service and keep employees and customers safe,” Parker said in a statement. “We must replenish our lost revenue while continuing to invest in expansion programs that will stimulate the economy and sustain jobs in a period of record high unemployment.”

Parker’s agency absorbed more than $1.3 million in unanticipated costs related to the coronavirus so far, including masks, gloves, cleaning supplies, and emergency sick leave. The agency expects $380 million in lost revenue over the next five years due to the crisis.

Georgia’s transit systems were struggling before the COVID crisis, largely due to the relative affordability of vehicles and fuel, as well as the proliferation of rideshare services, Watkins said. But buses will remain vital to post-pandemic Georgia, as they not only allow essential workers to do their jobs, but they also reduce traffic and pollution, Watkins said.

“As we look to a future where we would be back up to something approaching normal congestion levels and all the pollution that comes from that, it’s going to be critically important that the transit systems are still there, that we’ve helped them survive in the meantime, if you will, so that we can go back to addressing those kinds of problems,” she said.

Ross Williams
Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.