With gasoline close to $4 a gallon, many commuters are now more open to exploring alternative modes of transportation, which raises the question 'Is Newton County finally ready for public transportation?'
"Nothing has helped this effort more than $4 gas," said Joey Ledford, supervisor of account services for The Clean Air Campaign, a nonprofit that works to increase the number of commuters in the state participating in alternative forms of transportation including public ones.
While Newton County has no mass transit system of its own, its close proximity to Rockdale County, and slightly farther away DeKalb County, means that residents with cars can hook up to Atlanta's public transportation systems.
In February, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority extended its Xpress bus service, which runs five days a week into downtown Atlanta, to east Conyers with a stop at The Church In The Now. Since then, Newton County commuters have been quick to capitalize on the service.
On Wednesday afternoon, 56 percent of the vehicles parked at The Church In The Now had Newton County tags. Newton County cars nearly doubled the number of cars from Rockdale County - 136 to 70.
Newton County resident Sherry Moss has been using Xpress since February to get to her job at Emory Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta.
"I don't have any complaints. The bus drivers are great," Moss said, adding that she now uses her commute time to nap. "It's enjoyable."
"I still prefer driving but [commuting] saves on gas," Moss said. "Now I can put a half [a tank of gas] and run almost a whole seven days."
GRTA currently offers several routes to Atlanta from The Church In The Now with stops at Panola Road, Spring Street and the Five Points and Civic Center MARTA stations. Commuters, if they have a Breeze Card, may transfer for free, between Xpress and MARTA at stations served by both systems.
According to William Mecke, director of communications for GRTA, the Rockdale/Conyers routes are among the most crowded of the Xpress bus service.
"When it got to $3.50 and $4 that's the point when people said 'enough's enough, let me start looking at alternatives," Mecke said.
In addition to Xpress, county commuters have other alternatives besides driving alone. Commuters interested in joining a carpool but don't know who shares their commute and lives in their area can use the service Myridesmart, which links commuters throughout Georgia with compatible carpools and vanpools.
"You put in where you work, what hours you work, where you live and the system locates people that live close to you and work close to where you work that have similar schedules," Ledford said. "Then it's up to you to get with them."
According to the CleanAir campaign, so far this year, more than 3,000 commuters have signed up for the campaign's incentive program, which pays them up to $180 over the course of six months, to try carpooling, mass- transit, tele-working or bicycling. That is more than double the number of people to sign up over the same period last year.
More than two-thirds of the commuters that participate in the incentives program traditionally continue to use alternative forms of transportation after the six months end Ledford said.
"It's been a very successful program," said Ledford, adding that there are more incentives now than ever in which commuters can participate. "You cut your gas costs in half. That's a tremendous incentive for people's pocket books."
mass-transit for county
While there are ways for county residents with cars to access public transportation systems in the Metro Atlanta area, the options for those without cars are walking, cycling and hitching rides from friends. Additionally, the high cost of fuel has made even those with cars rethink their use of them.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2006 American Community Survey, approximately 35,275 of the county's 41,700 workers drive to work alone compared to the 4,250 people that carpooled, the 200 people that used public transportation and the 350 people that walked.
As these statistics were compiled when gas was still between $2 and $3 a gallon, it is likely they have now changed with an emphasis on more commuters choosing transportation options other than driving alone.
While transportation systems such as commuter rail are years away for the county, there are several options the county could take presently to bring in public transportation.
One of those options is implementing a rural van/minibus system. There is a federal grant available that the Board of Commissioners can apply for that would provide partial funding for a small fleet of buses and vans operating inside the county.
Called the 5311 Rural and Small Area Program, the grant requires that at least 10 percent of the costs of the program be covered by fares with the remaining 90 percent of costs split equally between federal and county funding sources. The cost of purchasing vans and buses for the rural transportation system is almost entirely paid for by the grant.
The county's Comprehensive Transportation Plan, which is in the final stages of completion, will contain a recommendation that the BOC pursue the 5311 federal grant.
"I'm certainly in favor of it and am encouraging the board to, as quick as possible, bring about the program," said County Engineer Kevin Walter.
Walter said he believed that the county would be expected to contribute between $150,000 to $200,000 a year in joint funding for the program, depending on the number of vehicles in the fleet. The maximum occupancy for any vehicle would be 18 people.
Though the BOC has been aware of the grant for a number of years, the board has not applied for the grant out of concern that the program will fail. According to Walter, other rural transportation programs have been tried by the county in decades past but failed to take hold.
County Administrative Officer John Middleton said the board is concerned that the federal funding might be terminated at some point in the future, leaving the county to pay the full costs of the program.
"One of the things you see, is they give you seed money to get you going and then in a couple of years it's gone," Middleton said. "When you look at that, you have to look at how you're going to fund that in the long term."
Middleton said he is not aware of any present discussion to apply for the federal grant this year but that all options are on the table for the board to consider. He added that the variables, especially $4 a gallon gasoline, have changed since the last time the BOC weighed applying for the grant.
Another option for public transportation for the county is bringing the Xpress bus service to Newton County.
Mecke, director of communications for GRTA, said it would require a change of the GRTA charter to bring service out to Newton County, as the county is not one of the 11 original counties that fall under GRTA's jurisdiction.
Still amending the charter would be a relatively simple thing (it's been done before) Mecke said, if the county were willing to commit the resources to purchasing Xpress buses for the county. Counties have paid between $800,000 to $2.1 million to participate in the program, which also receives state funding.
Mecke said GRTA was recently given approval to purchase 28 more coaches for its Xpress service, though a number of them will be used as backup buses.