It was a call Larry Butler had been waiting for — an offer to work at a frozen chicken warehouse just a couple of miles down the road.
The only problem: He’d need to fill out paperwork at a staffing company 6 miles away, and he didn’t have a car. He called a friend, but his car had a flat tire. He called some others, but they couldn’t give him a ride.
When the staffing company called back, wondering where he was, Butler said he couldn’t make it. He was about to lose a job within walking distance of his apartment because he couldn’t drive across town to fill out paperwork.
“Man, I want to be there,” he told the man from the staffing company. “But it feels like everyone in the world has turned his back on me today.”
Butler’s problem is fairly common. Across Georgia — in rural areas and small cities — low-income people have a hard time getting to work. Many of them, like Butler, don’t have a car. And public transportation — where it exists — doesn’t always meet their needs.
The bill would allow counties to raise sales taxes to expand transit. It would create a state-funded pilot program to help unemployed rural residents who need transportation to find jobs.
It would offer tax credits to companies that help cover their employees’ transportation costs. And it would encourage private-sector solutions to the tough problem of expanding transit in sparsely populated areas.
“We don’t have to go out and buy vans,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville. “I think a lot of these solutions lie in the private sector.”
Last year, lawmakers approved legislation that could pave the way for transit expansion across metro Atlanta. Now they’re trying to take that expansion statewide. If they succeed, it could help thousands of people like Butler.
“Ultimately” Tanner said, “we’re trying to help people who want to help themselves.”
Trouble getting to work
Brewer Turley recruits workers for Southern Point Staffing near Albany. In a busy week, the company places 20 to 30 people at local warehouses, farms and other employers.
Turley interviewed Butler for a warehouse job in August and was impressed by his enthusiasm. A week later, a position came open at Lineage Logistics, which freezes and stores chicken from local poultry plants.
The job paid just $8 an hour, but it beat the fast-food jobs Butler, 28, had been working. Turley called and told him he could start the next day. He just had to stop by Southern Point Staffing that day to fill out the paperwork. Butler told him he’d be there in an hour.
But he didn’t show up. Turley called him back. Butler again promised to be there shortly. Again, he didn’t show.
Turley was ready to find another candidate. But he called Butler one last time. That’s when Butler told him he couldn’t find a ride.
Turley wasn’t surprised. He figures one-quarter of the employees his company places have trouble getting to work.
About one-third of Albany’s 73,000 residents live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Turley has seen families that have never had a car.
“Or they have one vehicle, and they have to share it, and whoever has the best job gets it,” he said last week at his office. “Some of the best people we’ve got just can’t get a ride.”
Albany has a bus system that crisscrosses the city. But many of the companies that hire Southern Point Staffing workers are located far beyond the reach of bus routes.
That’s a problem across much of Georgia. It’s difficult enough to establish viable bus routes in parts of suburban Atlanta. In sparsely populated rural areas, regular bus routes don’t make financial sense.
Instead, Georgia’s 118 rural counties are served by 65 small transit operations that provide mostly on-call van services. It’s a valuable resource for many residents.
But often those services can’t keep up with the demand. And 36 of the state’s 159 counties have no public transportation. Private options such as Lyft and Uber can be scarce or nonexistent.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, some 247,000 Georgia households lack access to a vehicle — most of them outside metro Atlanta. Many in those households may be elderly and unable to drive. Others may choose to live without a vehicle.
But many are working-age people who just can’t afford a car. Without one, they have limited prospects for work. And even those with a vehicle sometimes have problems.
“I had a guy call me last Sunday night, saying: ‘I’m not going to be able to go to work tomorrow. I can’t come up with the gas money,’ ” Turley said. “His friends and family didn’t have it, either. That’s an eye-opening thing.”
‘We keep hiring him back’
Monquez Toomer, 29, lives with his grandmother in Albany. She has a car, but he’s reluctant to leave her without it. So he relies on friends and co-workers to catch rides to work. It hasn’t always worked well.
He’s had several jobs through Southern Point Staffing. Turley said he’s a hard worker. But he’s had trouble getting to work, and he keeps losing jobs.
“We keep hiring him back and hiring him back,” Turley said. “Sooner or later, he’s going to figure this transportation thing out, and he’s going to be a good employee.”
Toomer now works 40 hours a week in the shelling room of the Sunnyland pecan farm outside Albany. He pays a co-worker $20 a week to drive him to and from work.
Toomer started the job during the busy harvest season last fall, and the farm kept him on. He’s grateful.
“I’m here early. I’ve only been late two times,” Toomer said last week on a break from his job. “I know I’m a good worker. Hard work pays off in the end.”
Problems like Toomer’s are so common around Albany that Southern Point Staffing may launch a new business transporting workers to their jobs. It could buy a fleet of vans, then contract with local companies to pick up their employees.
But Turley said some of the programs that Tanner’s bill envisions would be a big help.
HB 511 would create a pilot project to offer tax credits to companies that provide transportation vouchers to their employees. Another project would provide direct transit subsidies to the unemployed in 22 low-income counties. A third set of programs would seek to plug transit gaps in metro Atlanta.
In recent legislative meetings, the pilot programs have drawn little scrutiny. But other aspects of the bill have drawn criticism.
To pay for pilot projects, Tanner’s original bill would have replaced the state sales tax on rides for hire with a flat fee of 50 cents a ride for all taxi, limousine and ride-hailing trips and a 25-cent fee for shared rides. The money from those fees — an estimated $30 million to $60 million — would be dedicated to transit programs.
That plan had the blessing of the affected industries. But the bill was later amended to scrap the fee and stick with the state sales tax, which is paid by taxi and limousine companies but not by ride-hailing services such as Lyft and Uber.
A separate bill would force the ride-hailing companies to pay the sales tax — which the companies say would impose the highest tax on their services in the country. That’s sparked a debate that has little to do with rural transit, but it could sink the bill.
Perhaps a bigger obstacle: Tanner’s plan to consolidate state transit services in a new state agency has drawn opposition from the Georgia Department of Transportation.
He says creating a single agency focused on transit would streamline bureaucracy and focus state resources. GDOT says there would be unintended consequences — for example, making the financing of some road construction projects more complicated.
The prospects of HB 511 are uncertain. It passed the House of Representatives by a wide margin. But it has yet to clear the Senate Transportation Committee, with the legislative session winding down.
Tanner is trying to address the concerns about his bill.
“There’s heartburn,” he said. “But I believe what we’re doing is in the best interests of the citizenry.”
‘I couldn’t believe it’
Butler thought he’d blown his chance at a decent job when he couldn’t catch a ride to Southern Point Staffing in August. He was wrong.
When Butler admitted his problem, Turley told him he’d be right over to pick him up.
“He really came and got me,” Butler said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Butler filled out the paperwork and started at the chicken warehouse the next day.
“I made a promise to Mr. Brewer that I was going to work it out,” Butler said. And he did.
For the first three weeks, he walked the two miles to work. After that, he found a co-worker who could give him rides. He’s never been late.
After a few months, the company hired him full time. He got a $1-an-hour raise. Recently, he was promoted to forklift operator and expects another raise.
Turley said there was no guarantee that Butler would get hired. He earned it.
Butler said the job is a blessing. Eventually, he hopes to save enough money to buy a car. And he said he might stay at the warehouse “until I’m like 60 or 70.”
“You give me a chance,” he said, “I’m going to perform.”
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