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Commuters share alternatives to individual driving
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 Even though gas prices have dropped dramatically in recent weeks to three-year lows, analysts say the prices may have bottomed out and predict the price will rise again in the future. Many drivers are likewise wary of reveling at the pumps, not believing the low prices will last.

 During the summer, many Newton County residents sought alternative ways to get around, mostly to alleviate the pinch on their pocketbooks, and found these alternatives offered additional benefits — such as polluting less, having a more relaxing, less stressful commute and being part of a community.

By bus

 Carole Golder finds a little bit of calm in her day at a time when many others are fighting traffic and road rage.

 As a passenger on the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority bus that leaves from the Sigman Road stop and travels to her job in downtown Atlanta with Georgia State University, she uses her transit time to nap or catch up on work.

 "I find I’m not stressed when I get there because I’m not worried about traffic, or weather or finding parking," Golder said. "I’m not worried about any of those things because I’m not doing the driving."

 Golder tried out the GRTA line last summer and became a regular when she found it worked well for her.

 Taking a bus is not as inconvenient as people might think, she said.

 "Sometimes you have to think about your schedule a little bit more," Golder said. "I have to leave the house by a certain time to make sure I catch the 7 a.m. bus, but it makes me be on schedule as well."

 And at $45 for a 40 trip pass, which works out to a little more than $1.12 per trip, she said it makes much more financial sense than paying for gas, the wear and tear on her car and parking.

 GRTA also recently started a bus line from the parking lot at The Church in the Now.

 For more information on the GRTA Express lines and schedules, visit or call (404) 463-4782

By van

 Covington resident Missy Cyphers had been searching for several years for a ride-share opportunity by signing up online before the Buckhead Area Transit Authority was able to match her up this past July with 12 other women in the Covington/Conyers area, who also worked in Buckhead, and were looking to share a van pool.

 She was thrilled to finally find a group of like-minded women with whom she could ride on the hour-plus commute, and is now saddened the group might lose the van after an upcoming price hike caused some members to drop out.

 "We love it, so we hate to lose it," she said.

 Each of the riders currently pays about $100 a month, which includes gas and the use of the van. But the program recently lost some government funding and the price will jump to $120 a month in January. The group needs at least 10 paying members to maintain the van, which is provided by BATMA (Buckhead Area Transportation Management Association).

 In the mornings, after being picked up from either the Covington location or Conyers location on Salem Road, the riders sleep, read or relax before work, and in the afternoons, the group often chats or jokes around, said Cyphers. Because BATMA lends the van, no one person’s car has to take the wear and tear, like in a car pool, and being a formalized program, the schedule is more reliable than an informal car-pool arrangement, she said.

 For Cyphers, even with the gas cost lowering, the program offers enormous advantages over commuting individually. She reels them off: "I’m a lot less tense when I get home in the afternoon. Friendship. I’m saving money by not going out at lunch; I would go out shopping. And peace of mind," Cyphers said.

 Financially, signing up for the program still makes sense, since she would pay about $250 in gas on her own.

 Sheila Cassidy of Social Circle, who serves as the primary driver in return for not paying a fee, had participated in van pools before and was excited when she learned this one would be starting. Even with having to handle all the paperwork and do the driving, she still prefers the van pool.

 "Developing the relationships may be the biggest perk," she said. "And look at the pollution issue. I think that was why this all started. To stop the pollution. If you don’t have as many cars on the road you’re not as polluting as much."

 To find out more about that van pool line, contact Cassidy at (404) 729-0213. For more information about van pools in general, visit

Natural Gas

 Newton County has a little more than a decade of experience using cleaner-burning natural gas vehicles in its public works and other departments.

 "The cars, we’ve had pretty good success out of them," said Buster Palmer, fleet manager for the county. He pointed out that natural gas vehicles have much cleaner emissions and less wear inside the engines.

 "When you check the engine oil between services, it looks so much cleaner," he said. "I do believe the vehicles will last a lot longer."

 Some drawbacks to natural gas vehicles include slightly more expensive parts and longer wait times to obtain those parts, which aren’t as widely available as regular gas vehicle parts.

 "It was a learning lesson in the beginning," he said. "Once we got to understand the system, it worked pretty well for a while until we started having pump problems."

 The county currently has 17 vehicles that can run on natural gas, but mechanical breakdowns of the natural gas pump at the fueling station has limited access of some of the cars.

 When the county first started using the vehicles, an equivalent amount of natural gas was selling about at half the price of government contracted regular gas, said Palmer. It’s been a little more difficult to compare the fuel costs since the pump malfunctions, but he said the cost of natural gas tends to fluctuate less than regular gas.

 At Snapping Shoals EMC, workers have used natural gas vehicles since 1998. It currently operates three cars, two vans and 18 pickup trucks that run on the cleaner-burning fuel, according to spokesperson Leigh-Anne Burgess.

 The company has no complaints about them, she said, and has found the vehicles have no more mechanical problems than an average car. The only drawback might be the lack of fueling stations, since not many places offer natural gas.

Smart Car

 Real estate broker Bill Blair often turns heads and elicits more than few smiles as he drives around in his distinctive white-and-black Smart Car. Think of a regular compact sedan, cut that in half, add a few stylistic, space-enhancing touches originating from the same people that made Swatch, and you have the Smart Car.

 "I had a Mercedes SUV (before the Smart Car) and the only difference I could tell is that these seats are a little bit closer together," Blair said. "But heck, as far as comfort and feel and head/leg/shoulder room, it’s just as good in this one as it was in the big one."

 The car holds its own on the highway, said Blair, reaching a top speed of 90 miles per hour and having enough pep to pull away from traffic lights with no problem.

 Switching from an SUV to the Smart Car bought Blair’s gas bill down about $120 a month. The car holds about eight gallons of gas and gets the kind of enviable mileage usually reserved for hybrids - about 40 to 45 miles a gallon.

 But, he said, "I didn’t order it for the gas economy. I just was lucky that I got it about the time gas prices went up."

 Blair and his wife took an interest in the car after a trip to Europe last spring where the Smart Car seemed to be on every street corner. Back home, discovering that DaimlerChrysler had just started to offer the car in the states, they jumped onto the waiting list, and a year later, had a "Passion" model with all the trimmings for a little under $15,000.

 Along with lowered gas bills, another benefit is the goodwill the car seems to generate.

 "I get a lot of smiles and thumbs up on the road," he said. "It’s a great little car. I love it. I did something ‘smart’ for a change."