Jeremy Barnet steps off the Route 14 bus at a stop on Broad Street in Athens. The route is busy. Barnet only has seven minutes to talk before he departs. Any riders who arrive after that will have to wait an hour for the Route 14 bus to return.
Barnet is a transit vehicle operator. The position is short-staffed at Athens-Clarke County’s Transit Department. This shortage can interrupt bus service in Athens, causing delays or service gaps of an hour or longer on some routes.Why It’s Newsworthy: The Athens-Clarke County transit department hopes a new Transit Development Plan will help improve service amid a vehicle operator shortage.
Vic Pope, the transit planner for Athens-Clarke County Transit, hopes to address issues like unreliable service and the vehicle operator shortage with the department’s 2023 Transit Development Plan. The five-year plan will consider factors like community feedback, ridership patterns and feasibility to create a transit system that adequately serves the community. Pope emphasized the importance of meeting community needs with the new plan.
“If it doesn’t get them to where they need to go, we might as well park the vehicles,” Pope said.
Seeking Community Input
Transit relies on input from Athens-Clarke County residents to address rider needs. Transit conducts surveys along with public engagement meetings to allow residents to vocalize their thoughts about transit. Topics of discussion range from offering free Wi-Fi on busses to expanding night service hours.
Pope says it has been difficult to get this feedback in the past, but this year is different.
“It’s been a eye-opening experience.” Pope said. “This is really a grassroots type development plan.”
Community input for the 2023 TDP has shown high public interest in more frequent busses and expanded routes as potential changes.
Expanding Transit to new locations would require route changes in the upcoming development plan. Athens Transit currently operates 21 routes at full operation. Pope says community engagement meetings have revealed those routes may not meet rider needs.
“The people are really saying, you know, where they’re headed is not on the current route,” Pope Said.
Following Population Growth
In his office, Pope points to a map of transit routes, where residents were invited to place pins on locations they would like transit to offer service to. The pins point to several different locations transit routes don’t currently serve, including Winterville. The city of Winterville part of Clarke County, but transit does not currently offer service there. Some areas outside of Athens-Clarke County also received requests for service.
Pope attributes this to growth in the surrounding area, like a new SK Battery Plant in Jackson County, which drew some requests for service. The Athens-Clarke County mayor and commission recently approved a redevelopment plan for the Georgia Square Mall property that includes plans for a remote transfer terminal, similar to the Multi-Modal Center operated by Athens Transit on East Broad Street in downtown Athens. Pope says this is a critical part of transit’s expansion and would allow people to travel across Athens more efficiently on transit routes.
Pope believes offering more reliable service will make bus service a more attractive method of transportation for Athens-Clarke County residents.
“We’ve got to build it, and then I think people will use it,” Pope said.
Recruiting Vehicle Operators
Transit Operations Administrator Alex Crayton says Athens Transit will also need more vehicle operators to improve transit service.
“Without people you have nothing,” Crayton said. “Transit can’t grow without operators.”
Crayton manages the hiring and training of operators at Athens Transit. He named several factors that may contribute to the operator shortage: low wages and a long training process make the position less attractive to potential hires.
“A lot of people don’t take into consideration the amount of responsibility,” Crayton said. “Transit is a great place to work, but it’s not for everyone.”
Crayton says new vehicle operators require six to eight weeks of training to drive the busses.
“Athens is not technically designed for 40-foot busses, so it’s a lot of training,” he said.
Operators are an important source of information in the route planning process, according to Crayton. Their experience on the routes and proximity to passengers in the community gives them a unique perspective.
Riding the Busy Route 14 Bus
Barnet drives the Route 14 bus every weekday. He’s been a vehicle operator for 17 years and believes Athens Transit provides a good service for the community. He notices a lot of regulars on his bus.
“A lot of people depend on it,” Barnet said.
Barnet’s Route has the third highest ridership at Athens Transit.
“Usually, the first two or three hours, I get slammed,” Barnet said.
The operator shortage doesn’t affect him personally, although he thinks having more operators would improve transit service.
“If busses ran more frequently, more people would ride,” Barnet Said.
Transit currently employs 32 full-time vehicle operators. It would need 43 in total to return to full service and offer more frequent busses.
As Athens transit develops plans for the future, it still grapples with an operator shortage and unreliable service today. Creating the TDP requires balancing community needs with the resources available to transit.
“What can we feasibly do, and what does the community want us to do?” Pope Said. “We try to marry those two and come up with a service that works for everyone.”
Athens Transit plans to present the TDP to the Athens-Clarke County mayor and commission in October of 2023. If the plan is adopted, Athens transit expects to implement route changes in July of 2024.
Jason Wier is a third-year student majoring in journalism.
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