REROUTING: GTA struggles raise concerns from citizens, city council

The Greensboro Transit Authority is striving to stick to schedule as it navigates budget deficits while trying to avoid increasing fares and fewer routes.

For a while it seemed that the GTA had been thrown a lifeline in the form of a contract renewal with Veolia Transportation Services, a contractor responsible for maintenance and drivers.

Before the GTA could exhale a sigh of relief, the contract was officially protested by another company, First Transit, over perceived bias from some members of the selection committee during the bidding process.

First Transit filed the protest on May 15, effectively pressing pause on the contract renewal with Veolia.

The GTA is scheduled to discuss the protest during a board meeting on Wednesday. If First Transit is not satisfied with GTA’s response to the protest, they can appeal to City Council and potentially file a lawsuit against GTA.

The protest has only added stress to an already tense situation. There are undeniably people in Greensboro who completely depend on buses to get around. Mobility is an essential requirement for any individual to survive, and most of Greensboro was developed with car-owners in mind.

Those who cannot drive, or afford cars, absolutely need public transportation in order to live in the City.

GTA currently serves about 260,000 people within an area of 131 square miles, with over four million passenger trips a year.

The City would also like to encourage more people to use public transportation in order to reduce emissions, decrease traffic, and prevent overcrowding in downtown parking lots.

These are noble goals and understandable needs. The problem is that the City may not be able to afford the current services as they are for much longer. It is a conflict between wanting to provide a service while also not having the ability to make the necessary funds appear out of thin air.

Things became heated between representatives of GTA and some members of City Council over the cost of maintaining the service during a City Council meeting on May 20.

The discussion began during the public comment portion of the meeting. Greensboro resident Lonnie Cunningham urged Council to consider a bond referendum to continue to subsidize the cost of bus fares at the current rate.

Cunningham suggested that one way to pay for the bus system would be to have a youth group collect all the political campaign signs left around the City and send a bill to the candidates.

Cunningham also pointed out that buses in Chapel Hill are free.

“Chapel Hill has free buses because UNC subsidizes it,” Mayor Nancy Vaughan responded. Council members chimed in to say that the City does take public transportation seriously and that they already heavily subsidize the cost of bus fares, which are currently $1.50 per trip for riders.

Bruce Adams, the Senior Operations Planner for the GTA, presented the program of projects for the GTA for the upcoming fiscal year. The program includes the addition of more hybrid buses, which cost 40 to 50 percent more than regular buses. The recurrent maintenance is less costly with hybrid buses, but GTA representatives did concede that there is a high replacement cost for the batteries that only last about five years.

The proposed hybrid buses would join the three hybrid buses that were added to GTA’s fleet this March.

“I want people to understand that these buses are better for the environment,” said Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson. “That’s important.”

Councilman Zack Matheny jumped into the discussion. Matheny, who has advocated for increasing the price of bus fares by 20 cents, pointed out that GTA cost the City of Greensboro about $23 million in 2013, and at a rate of $35 per bus ride.

“If we raise the rates could we not do more to help GTA?” asked Matheny. “The cost of buses is going up. The cost of fuel is going up. Do you see where I’m going with this?” Councilwoman Sharon Hightower expressed her strong disagreement with Matheny on the issue, but eventually they decided to table the discussion and agree to disagree.

“We’re not going to do it. It’s not going to happen,” said Hightower in response to the proposed fare increase.

“And most of Council agrees with me on that.”

Even an increase of an extra quarter per trip would add up for members of the community who rely on public transportation to get around everyday. A person making two or three round trips a day could end up paying an extra dollar a day or more.

Matheny implied that bus fare increases would most likely be a priority for him in the future. “You’re probably going to hear a lot more about this from me,” said Matheny. !