Atlanta Business Chronicle – June 23, 2006 by Ryan Mahoney Staff Writer
The Buc is running out of cash, and Buckhead businesses may be asked to pick up the tab.
The free shuttle bus service around Buckhead has nearly burnt through its federal startup money and is looking for new funding sources to keep it operating — possibly including a millage increase for the commercial properties within the self-taxing Buckhead Community Improvement District.
At the same time, several other metro-area CIDs are watching the Buc carefully to see if it’s feasible to launch their own free bus systems. They believe such circulator routes will help alleviate traffic on their own choked streets, where congestion could impair development if it gets any worse.
Launched in January 2004, the Buc (short for the Buckhead Uptown Connection) averages more than 2,000 riders a day, on par with its original target. It is the metro’s only CID-backed circulator so far and one of just a few nationwide.
The Buc provides an important service not offered by MARTA: bridging the gap between Buckhead’s two MARTA rail stations and its office towers and giving car-driving workers an alternative way to access its malls and restaurants during the day. Tourists and residents also board the Buc in the evenings and, since November, on Saturdays.
But the federal dollars that got the Buc up and running and made up most of its $1.6 million budget last year will run out in November. The Buckhead CID supplies about $300,000 now, but doesn’t have room in its own $3 million budget to cover the difference. And the system’s annual cost is projected to rise by as much as $1 million.
‘At a flashpoint’
So the CID has hired an aptly named consulting firm, The Lean Group LLC, to figure out how to streamline the system and find the money it needs to continue operating. A decision is expected by Aug. 1 on whether the Buc will survive, and if so, how. “We’re at a flashpoint,” said Scotty Greene, the CID’s executive director. “We’ve been warming up to this decision for three years.”
Among the cost-cutting options on the table are reducing the Buc’s frequency and operating hours, currently every eight to 15 minutes from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays and every 30 minutes from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturdays.
A few infrequently used stops — the Buc has about 30 total — could also disappear, though service to the Buckhead Village and an express route between the Piedmont Center office park and the malls might be added.
The Buckhead Area Transportation Management Association (BATMA), the entity which actually manages the Buc, in April asked nearly 2,100 riders and non-riders how they would feel about potential changes to the system.
50 cents for a Buc?
BATMA has since all but ruled out charging people to ride, said Executive Director Denise Starling, given that less than half of the survey’s respondents said they would continue to ride as often as they do now if even a 50-cent fare was added. Administrative costs for collecting fares also would be high, she said.
The CID could raise plenty of money for the Buc by asking commercial property owners within its boundaries to approve an increase in the property tax revenue they already voluntarily contribute to fund the CID’s many programs. CID initiatives range from stationing traffic cops at busy intersections to a total overhaul of a stretch of Peachtree Road.
Greene would like to avoid that. He noted that Buckhead’s current rate of three mills ($3 for every $1,000 of assessed property value) is as low as any metro Atlanta CID, and he is loath to raise it without strong evidence of the need to do so. Major Buckhead property owners are also cautious, though not necessarily opposed to the idea.
“I’ve got an open mind to it,” said David Allman, chairman of the CID and president of Regent Partners Inc., which is building a 48-story, mixed-use skyscraper at 3344 Peachtree. “But we need to be able to justify any increase.”
“The Buc is certainly an amenity to the neighborhood and the building,” said Ron O’Neal, BATMA right outside its 20-story One Alliance Center on the Lenox Road loop. “We just have to make it run efficiently.”
There are other ways to finance the Buc, though no single source would produce as much revenue as a millage increase. BATMA could try to increase onboard advertising, for example. It intends to ask homeowner associations at Buckhead’s numerous existing and planned condominiums to pitch in, perhaps in return for direct-to-the-door service.
There is also the possibility of getting MARTA to run the Buc instead of current operator American Coach Lines Inc. However, that is unlikely, since it would probably mean imposing a fare. The Buc could also seek regional funding. Suburban bus systems run by Clayton, Cobb and Gwinnett counties and the Georgia Regional
Transportation Authority are, like the Buc, nearly out of federal money and trying to figure out their future through a new regional transit planning board.
MARTA, which has been running a deficit for years, is also part of the conversation, as is the Atlanta Regional Commission, the pass-through agency for many federal dollars. “I definitely think there’s a spot for these [CID] circulators,” said Cain Williamson, an ARC principal planner involved with the task force. “But the Buc is in an awkward situation because our regional funding discussion won’t happen for a while.”
The Downtown, Cumberland, Perimeter and Town Center CIDs are also considering or implementing free Buc-style circulators, initially backed by Uncle Sam (with the exception of the Downtown CID, which will rely on about $5 million in direct corporate donations instead). Cumberland did a feasibility study in 2001 that found its submarket could not support such a system. But with the area growing denser and thousands of new residential units expected in and around the business district over the next few years, the CID in April decided to revisit the issue. “We’re watching the Buc closely,” said Ginny Rainey, executive director of the Cumberland CID’s Commuter Club. “We think it’s worth the hassle.”
Reach Mahoney at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle – June 26, 2006