Clayton County loses vital bus service, link to Atlanta

The Great Recession has yet to claim J.C. Butler's warehouse job on the north side of metro Atlanta.

But now it has eradicated his means of getting there.

Butler, 57, lives in Clayton County, a majority-black, working-class suburb on Atlanta's south flank that killed off its local bus system Wednesday over concerns about a $19-million countywide budget shortfall.

The demise of the buses, which provided 2.1 million rides last year, is among the most dramatic of the scores of public transit cutbacks enacted across the U.S. in recent months as agencies adjust to plummeting government revenue.

Wednesday morning, Butler rode for the last time on the 503 bus as it snaked through the pre-dawn darkness, past cul-de-sac streets named for English kings and tropical ports of call. At each stop it took on auto repair and airport workers, community college students and janitors.

Butler slumped by a window seat, scowling.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," he said, adding, "So many people here, they're going to be sure enough messed up. We need this bus bad."

They are not alone. For ecological, economic and practical reasons, commuters nationwide remain hungry for public transit.

Since 1995, public transportation use is up 31%, more than twice the U.S. population growth rate, according to the American Public Transportation Assn., the nonprofit that represents the nation's commuter systems. Last year, Americans took 10.2 billion public transit trips.

In a survey of 151 member agencies released Thursday, the association found that about 9 in 10 of them reported flat or decreased local and state funding. Nearly 3 in 5 had already cut service or raised fares.

"This is the worst I've seen in my 31 years in public transit," said Art Guzzetti, the transportation association's vice president for policy.

In California, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority will raise fares from $1.25 to $1.50 per ride in July -- with more raises possible later. The MTA is considering other measures, such as reducing hours on bus lines with lower passenger counts.

In March, the Orange County Transportation Authority reduced bus service by about 8% due to state budget cuts, decreased sales tax revenue and declining ridership.

But perhaps nowhere in the country is the crisis more acute than in Clayton County. Officials with the transportation association say the system is the only one they are aware of that has completely shut down due to budget pressure.

It is also a place where a large number of suburban working poor may now be stranded: A survey of riders in April 2008 found that 65% of them do not have access to a car. In a survey last month, 3 out of 4 said they may lose their jobs when the buses stopped rolling.

Much of that worry trundled along with bus 503 as it made the last of its morning tours Wednesday. The 503 route is one of the system's most popular, ending at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, where many riders work, and where others catch the regional MARTA train to points north.

Some riders on the 503 said they had arranged carpools with friends and family; others said their homes were within acceptable distance of the stops for the handful of regional express buses that will still run north into Atlanta. But many others were without solutions.

Carpenter Anthony Slade, 26, decided he would be walking to and from the airport MARTA station from his home four miles away. He figured that would come to about three hours of walking daily.

"It looks like I'm going to have to keep that up until they get the bus service going on again," he said.

Riding in the front of the bus was William Griffin Jr., 65 -- a minister, formerly drug-addicted and homeless, now clean and sporting a hat festooned with hand-scrawled tributes to Jesus.

He said he had called one of the private jitney services that have been circulating handbills promising rides for locals. But Griffin hasn't found one that goes to his neighborhood.

At stake, Griffin said, was his job at a recycling plant in the far northern suburbs.

"In this recessionary time, they're not going to hold this job for you until the buses are back," he said.

Mark Watson, 35, was heading to his job at the county dump. His wife works a 4 a.m. shift at a hospital in midtown Atlanta. He said he'd probably start driving her there, then driving 40 minutes back to Clayton County in the 20-year-old car they share.

"It's running bad right now, so that drive to midtown has got me scared," he said.

It was October when the county commission voted, 4 to 1, to end bus service by the end of March.

The one vote to maintain the bus system came from Eldrin Bell, the commission chairman and former Atlanta police chief. In an interview Tuesday, Bell said he feared the loss of the bus system would result in more foreclosures and lower property values.

He feared for the college students, probationers and sick people without cars who would now be stranded. He said he feared rising crime as people turned from legitimate to illegitimate work.

"I've lived with racism," said Bell, who is one of four black commissioners on the five-member board. "But this is a new one -- it's called classism. I've never seen anything like it."

Bell contends that the commission could have found a way to fund the buses. But Commissioner Wole Ralph said it just wasn't possible.

The bus system costs about $10 million per year to operate. The bus fares, he said, covered about $2 million of that.

The county had been covering much of the rest of the price tag with the fees from subdivision applications, Ralph said. But these days there aren't many subdivisions going up in the Atlanta suburbs.

"The only responsible thing to do was to cut the service," Ralph said. "This economy has forced individuals to tighten their belts, and governments have to do it too."

The commissioners said the bus service could be restored by a bill now in the Legislature that would allow the county to levy an additional sales tax to extend MARTA -- the big regional transit service that mostly operates in Fulton and Dekalb counties -- into Clayton.

But that would also involve a countywide referendum. Bell said in the best-case scenario, buses would not return to the streets until August.

The 503 pulled into the airport lot just before 7 a.m. and Griffin, the minister, addressed them all.

"I would like to say good morning to everyone," he boomed. "I would like you to all to know that Jesus loves you -- and that it's not over till it's over."

richard.fausset@ latimes.com

Staff writer Raja Abdulrahim in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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