With aging baby boomers the fastest-growing group in metro Atlanta, advocates for the elderly are looking at how projects in the July 31 transportation referendum could help seniors, especially when they have to give up their car keys.
They say the referendum is not the definitive solution, but it's a start. When voters in 10 metro Atlanta counties decide whether to accept a 1 percent sales tax, they're considering a project list that includes walking trails, upgraded sidewalks, more buses and MARTA upgrades, which elderly advocates say would help older people maintain their independence longer. The advocates also cite the proposed Clifton Corridor light rail in DeKalb County as a way to reach health care facilities more efficiently.
The $6.14 billion list, which was compiled with senior citizens in mind, also has a $17 million call center that would be a one-stop transportation resource and planning facility for people over the age of 60 and the disabled.
But referendum opponents say taxpayers shouldn't have to pay for decisions people made long ago to move to areas with no transit or limited options.
What's not debatable is that the 20-county metro Atlanta region has become a haven for aging baby boomers — those who are now ages 48 to 66. They number more than 1.3 million, according to census data.
The referendum's projects "might be a step toward linking things together further down the line," said Janie Walker, associate state director for community outreach for AARP Georgia, which has just under 1 million members and is not advocating for or against the measure. "I don't think any of these things will be quick benefits because some of those projects don't start for a while. ... some will set the stage for later extension for light rail, which would certainly help seniors in the suburbs."
A growing concern
Some experts worry about seniors being "stranded."
In three years, if nothing is done, 90 percent of metro Atlantans over the age of 65 will be living in neighborhoods with little or no access to bus or rail lines, says Transportation for America, a Washington-based policy group that pushes for greater investments in public transportation.
Over the next two decades, many will end up having to give up their main source of independence — their car keys — and rely on family, friends or public service to get to stores, church and doctors.
"So many people have moved outside the city. Once they quit driving, they'll be stuck," said AARP's Walker.
But referendum opponents see other options.
"You have churches that can step to the plate and take citizens places," said Gwinnett County resident Debbie Dooley, co-founder of the Atlanta Tea Party. "I see vans, nonprofits and senior citizen centers [already providing transportation]. There's a lot of federal grants for companies and private enterprise that want to provide services to senior citizens that exist now."
Two decades ago, Atlanta was a mecca for young professionals looking for high-tech jobs and affordable housing. Now, one in 10 metro Atlantans are over the age of 60; by 2030, it'll be one in five, according to Atlanta Regional Commission and census projections. The ARC's is the region's planning agency.
"It's a serious quality of life issue and will be one for the large majority of those who live out their retirement in metro Atlanta," said David Goldberg, who co-authored a stranded seniors study for Transportation for America. The study ranked metro Atlanta's transportation options for seniors the worst among comparably sized regions like Dallas, Detroit and Houston.
For instance, Riverside, Calif., has a Transportation Reimbursement and Information Program, or TRIP, where older adults recruit their own transportation -- usually friends or neighbors. After providing documentation, riders are later reimbursed by Riverside, and they, in turn, give money to their driver. As of 2009, the latest available data, it was serving passengers at a cost of $4.98 a ride.
In metro Atlanta, Eldrin Bell, who heads the ARC's Aging Services Committee, insists the referendum is critical for the region's elderly. Bell, who also is the Clayton County Commission chairman, served on the panel of officials who approved the referendum's final project list.
In the past several months, Bell has repeatedly heard concerns from seniors at town hall meetings around the region and in Clayton, where bus service that many elderly relied on ended in March 2010.
"They desperately need it for their visits to medical centers to receive regular care such as dialysis and cardiac care," Bell said. "They need it to go many other places because our shopping centers are so far from them."
Of course, it's not just an issue in Clayton County.
Wilbur Roosevelt of Lawrenceville recently had trouble finding a ride when he had to have eye surgery. He lives alone, and family wasn't available. He used Gwinnett County's Get in Gear voucher service, which has 101 people on its waiting list. Roosevelt, who still has eye and other health problems, said the proposed call center would be helpful.
"I would put a penny in the bucket every day for that," said the 66-year-old retired human resources development specialist.
Transportation for America's Goldberg called the call center concept "groundbreaking." Conceivably, the center, which will use existing ARC call centers as a launch pad, could be a clearinghouse of the various available services in the 10-county region.
'Not a walking region'
The fast-growing elderly population has not escaped notice of the region's transportation planners.
"Everybody in the region is aware that there's going to be growth in the elderly population and it's going to put pressure on transportation services in the future," said Phil Boyd, transit division manager for Gwinnett County, which is expected to see its over-60 population grow 113 percent by 2030. "There's been a pretty big effort over the last two to three years to start some of the new services like Get in Gear, and that's good to see."
In addition to the regional projects in the transportation referendum, about $1 billion from the 10-year tax would be returned to cities and counties for local needs of their choice, including sidewalks and walking trails. For example, Cobb County has allocated $7.5 million from its "15 percent" funds for Cobb Community Transit Paratransit services and senior vouchers.
A number of programs and services have cropped up in the region in the past five years to help supplement limited access to public transit for the elderly and disabled, said Laura Keyes, the ARC's community development manager for the Aging Services Division. But efforts are cobbled together through churches, senior citizens centers, private services and local governments.
"There are a lot of people out there. Instead of working together, [they're] providing the same services and they're not aware of each other," Taylor said. "... The growth of Atlanta is one of the problems of getting older. It's not a walking region. It's not friendly for the elderly."
But Johns Creek resident Tom Tracy, 63, isn't so sure the referendum will help the elderly much. Even if there were more buses and trains, he said he wouldn't use them because he travels short distances.
Despite limited transportation options, the semiretired information technology consultant plans to stay because of the region's good medical facilities.
Tracy's 92-year-old mother stopped driving a decade ago and relies on him, his brother and a Buckhead cab service. If metro Atlanta's problems aren't addressed, Tracy concedes he and his wife could "end up in the same situation as my mom."
"We'd have to rely on friends, some sort of cab service or family to get around."
Janet Taylor, a nurse who owns Southern Hospitality, a 2-year-old concierge service for seniors in Atlanta, said seniors "make their choice for living arrangements depending on transportation and where their doctors are and walking access to grocery stores. They're looking for inexpensive ways to get around such as carpooling and bus lines and being near MARTA."
Transportation needs depend on people's capabilities, Taylor said. "Some people at 83 are in better shape than people at 57."
The graying of metro Atlanta
By the numbers
Share of metro Atlanta's population that's over the age of 45: 34 percent
Number of baby boomers (adults age 48-66) in metro Atlanta now: 1.3 million
Percentage increase of baby boomers since 2000: 50 (the largest growth of any age group in the region)
Metro Atlantans over the age of 60 now: 10 percent
Metro Atlantans over the age of 60 by 2030: 20 percent
Georgia's national ranking in the 65-plus population: 8th*
Age group with the biggest transportation hardship: 80 years and older
Percentage of those 55-59 years old who have transportation hardship: 16
By percentage growth
(Metro Atlanta's 55 and older population: 2005 - 2030)
Henry, 266 percent
Rockdale, 254 percent
Cherokee, 247 percent
Douglas, 235 percent
Fayette, 205 percent
Region, 127 percent
DeKalb, 118 percent
Gwinnett, 113 percent
Clayton, 107 percent
Fulton, 96 percent
Cobb, 85 percent
HOW OLDER METRO ATLANTANS GET AROUND
Drive themselves: 88 percent
Driven by others: 7 percent
Use public transit: 4 percent
IN THE FUTURE
(when they can no longer drive)
Plan to be driven by others: 57 percent
Use public transit: 13 percent
Don't know: 21 percent
* Between the years 2010 and 2040
Sources: Atlanta Regional Commission, "Older Adults in the Atlanta Region: Preferences, Practices and Potential of the 55+ Population"; U.S. census estimates, Woods & Poole Economics in Washington, D.C.