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Lawmakers tackle transit problems in rural Georgia

Fresh from igniting what could be a major expansion of public transportation in metro Atlanta, state lawmakers are taking aim at a more difficult task: fixing transit in rural Georgia.

Across large swaths of the state, seniors struggle to make it to medical appointments, workers can’t get to jobs and college students can’t find a ride to class. Many don’t own cars. And unlike their peers in metro Atlanta, their public transit options and private services like Uber and Lyft are limited or nonexistent.

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Now a state House of Representatives commission is exploring options to meet rural Georgia’s unique transit needs while also limiting state spending. The commission is considering various private sector incentives, such as tax credits for employers, as well as transit subsidies for the unemployed in rural areas and small cities.

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“I’m excited to see what can come out of something like that, creating a competitive environment,” said Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, who chairs the House Commission on Transit Governance and Funding. “We want to create an environment for innovation.”

Tanner’s commission spent last year crafting transit legislation for metro Atlanta. The result, House Bill 930, allowed 13 metro Atlanta counties to raise sales taxes for mass transit. It also created a regional board to oversee transit planning and construction. The idea is to encourage new service and transform a mishmash of transit agencies into a seamless regional system.

The fruits of that legislation are already evident. In March,Gwinnett County residents will consider joining MARTA and approving a 1-cent sales tax for transit expansion. If successful, the measure would extend MARTA rail service to Norcross and expand bus service across the county.

FultonCobb and DeKalb counties also are contemplating transit expansions made possible by HB 930.

In metro Atlanta, transit expansion may involve new MARTA rail lines and new bus routes. But that approach won’t necessarily work for the two million Georgians who are scattered in rural areas and small cities across the state. These sparsely populated communities don’t have the riders or concentrated tax base to fund traditional mass transit systems.

Instead, residents in 118 rural counties are served by sixty-five small transit operations that provide mostly on-call van services, rather than fixed-route buses. Officials in these areas say they are a vital link for their residents - but there’s not enough service to meet the demand.

That’s why Tanner’s commission is seeking different strategies to help enhance these services and expand transportation options for residents in these areas.

In recent months, senior citizens’ advocates, college officials and business leaders have told lawmakers they face unique challenges as they try to help people get where they need to go.

Eve Anthony, CEO of the Athens Community Council on Aging, said as seniors age their loss of independence and mobility can have devastating consequences, especially in rural areas.

The agency, which serves seniors in 27 northeast Georgia counties, doesn’t have enough funding to transport all seniors who need help. She recalled an elderly Clarke County woman who repeatedly asked for transportation help when the agency delivered meals to her home. The agency couldn’t provide it. Later, the woman was struck and killed by a car while crossing the road.

“It’s really hard to say no,” Anthony said, “and transportation is the service we have to say ‘no’ to most.”

For workers, lack of mobility can mean lost opportunity, particularly if they live paycheck to paycheck and don’t own a dependable car.

Brianna Wilson, who owns a staffing agency in Albany, said the city has bus service, but it doesn’t reach some major employers in the rural areas of southwest Georgia.

To help fill the void, Wilson is launching a new company that will transport workers to their jobs.

“We have some really good employees,” she said. “They just need someone to reach out and say, ‘here’s how we can do it.’”

That’s where Tanner’s commission comes in.

The group is discussing tax credits that employers could use to help pay for new workers’ transit passes or vouchers for private transportation services.

The commission also is considering direct transportation subsidies for the unemployed. Tanner said this assistance would draw new people into the workforce, generating payroll tax revenue to partially offset the costs.

Other ideas the commission is kicking around include:

*Shifting state hotel-motel tax proceeds dedicated to road and bridge construction to rural transit. Tanner said Georgia’s motor fuel sales tax – which can only be spent on road work – could be raised to ensure spending on roads is not diminished.

*Assigning one state agency the authority to oversee transit funding in rural Georgia. Currently, three agencies handle various aspects of transit funding. Tanner said the savings from consolidation could be used for transit service.

*Dividing the state into regions based on traffic and economic patterns. Each region would produce its own plan to improve transit service. The state could pay for pilot projects proposed by the various regions.

Tanner hopes to finalize recommendations in December and to unveil legislation in the upcoming session of the General Assembly.

“You’re talking about a lot of moving parts – three state agencies and a whole host of rural transit providers out there,” he said. “It’s a difficult lift. But I do think it would be positive if we could get it done.”

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