When Rome officials talk about the less than 2% of the city’s population that uses Rome Transit, they are talking about riders like Lisa Wood, the Cowart couple and Latisha Jordan.
On a chilly Friday, they were taking RTD buses traveling through east and west Rome, picking up prescriptions, going to the doctor, grocery shopping, visiting relatives or paying bills.
Many riders also take buses to get to and from work. A recent survey of about 160 RTD riders discovered that 45% of them are employed.
“Once you learn the schedule, you can go east, west, north or south — pretty much anywhere you want to go,” Wood said while riding route 2A with 10 others between 1:30 and 2:30 p.m. that day.
She said she’d just gotten off another bus she’d taken to visit her sister and was on her way to pay some bills.
“I don’t know what I’d do without the bus,” she said, adding she’d love it if buses were available on Saturdays.
Since RTD lost 90% of its riders with the elimination of the Tripper service for local schools, the city has been working with a consulting firm to help it figure out how to increase ridership to prevent the loss of valuable grants.
Loss of the Tripper service after 35 years represents a yearly income loss of $1.4 million for RTD, according to Transit Director Kathy Shealy.
James and Charly Cowart remembered being part of an on-board survey done by transit consultants Moore & Associates at the end of last year. They are among the 94% of riders surveyed who indicated they don’t have access to a personal vehicle.
“This is our only source of transportation and we love it,” said Charly as she clung to her husband’s arm on a route 2A bus. “It’s much cheaper than having a car. You don’t have to pay for gas or insurance or make payments. We both get a 50-ride card for only $22.50. It’s very worth it.”
James — a former meth addict who has had five heart attacks and wears a Pacemaker — said they took the bus to the doctor that morning and were looking forward to spending the rest of the day watching movies at home.
He said when they first moved from Cartersville to Rome a year ago because Rome had a more reliable public transportation system, they were staying at the Salvation Army shelter and then in a tent for a spell.
He said they are now happily living in a heated storage building near Darlington School.
Charly said when they met four years ago, it took only 12 hours for James to propose to her. They were married one month later.
“I saved her from the streets and she saved me from dope,” he said. “I’ve been clean and sober for a year now thanks to her. We’ve been very blessed.”
After they jumped off at a stop near Darlington, Jordan — a young mother of seven — negotiated settling into a front seat with her 1-month-old daughter in a covered carrier.
Jordan said she moved from south of Macon one month ago to live with her mother near Turner McCall Boulevard because Rome offered a safer environment for her children and easier access to public services. That day, she rode the bus to pick up formula for her newborn.
At one point during her 30-minute trip, Jordan asked bus driver Symone Fentress about a day care center she’d heard about. Fentress provided her with the information she needed and handed her a route map to help her figure out the best way to get there and back with her young ones.
Fentress, who has been driving for RTD for two years, often laughed and joked around with her passengers — many of whom she sees on a regular basis.
Fentress said she’d love to see RTD expand its hours and frequency, especially offering service on weekends. She said she’s grown to love her job and her passengers and wants only the best for them.
“This is the first job I’ve had where I actually wake up every day and look forward to going to work,” she said. “I came to realize a simple smile can go a long way because you never know what someone is going through. If I can somehow brighten their day, I will do my best to do that while they’re on my bus.”