Bill to boost rural transit in Georgia sees major setback

By Beau Evans
Staff Writer
Capitol Beat News Service

ATLANTA – When the legislative session resumes, Georgia lawmakers will take up a measure originally aimed at bringing better public transit options to people in rural parts of Georgia, especially for seniors who already struggle to shop and attend medical appointments.

But senior advocates point out the measure, House Bill 511, was gutted a few weeks before the General Assembly was indefinitely suspended amid the coronavirus outbreak.

They view the move as a disappointing end to legislation that promised more money and tighter management for rural transit options geared toward helping older Georgians.

Lawmakers behind the changes, meanwhile, say counties and cities can already tap into state and federal funds to expand their local transit systems – an option they say makes unnecessary a key proposal in the bill to create a new oversight agency for rural transit.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Kevin Tanner, initially would have consolidated transit functions carried out by three different state agencies into a new department tasked with overseeing transit projects via regional managers, who would be spread out across Georgia into multi-county “mobility zones.”

Crucially, Tanner’s original bill also included ways to raise new state funds for buses and transit workers, either by letting counties levy new sales taxes dedicated to transit services or by charging a flat fee on ride-hailing trips run by Uber and Lyft.

Tanner, R-Dawsonville, previously said the measure would give Georgia transit officials more tools to boost transit options for seniors and others in isolated rural areas.

Georgia has around 200,000 residents age 70 and older who no longer drive and have a tough time reaching grocery stores, doctor’s offices and other important places on their own, according to a Georgia Health Policy Center report from 2018. Officials expect the population of Georgians 60 years and older to double by 2040.

There are no public transit systems operating in 36 of the state’s 159 counties, according to the Georgia Department of Transportation. That equates to about 1 million Georgians who do not have a local public transit system, GDOT reported in 2017.

While most of the 80 transit systems operating in rural areas allow riders to cross county lines on an as-needed basis, some do not. That gap creates a problem for seniors who need to reach hospitals or other essential services, said Vicki Johnson, chairwoman of the Georgia Council on Aging.

Senior advocates like Johnson were counting on Tanner’s bill to help increase more cross-county transit options and broader regional public transit in underserved areas.

“We saw it as being very advantageous to coordinate with a single administrative unit in designing programs that would provide expanded transit for seniors,” Johnson said. “We thought this regional approach would be much better suited to their needs, especially in rural Georgia.”

Tanner’s bill had backing from several top lawmakers including House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, who was a co-sponsor. The bill cleared the state House last year but hit a roadblock in the Georgia Senate, where lawmakers earlier this month stripped it down to the studs.

Now, the bill deals only with administrative rules for the Atlanta-region Transit Link Authority (the ATL) and an extension on tying the state’s motor fuels tax rate to the consumer price index.

Instead of creating a new department, the three state agencies tasked with public transit – GDOT, the Department of Human Services, and the Department of Community Health – are considering a pilot program for a regional commission to administer all rural, senior and non-emergency medical transportation services.

“The pilot will offer fully coordinated rural transit and human services transportation at the regional level and provide improved accessibility and ease of use for riders,” said Carol Comer, director of GDOT’s Intermodal Division.

Sen. Steve Gooch, who spearheaded the bill’s gutting, said rural counties can already tap into federal grants divvied out by the state that help pay for public buses and on-demand shuttles. But some local governments choose not to pursue those funds, he said.

That lack of interest made the proposals in Tanner’s bill a tough pill to swallow for state agencies wary of consolidating, Gooch said.

“There has been very little if any demand for a statewide regional area for public transit in rural areas,” said Gooch, R-Dahlonega.

Comer said counties do have access to several different federal grants for rural transit, which require local matching funds. The state Department of Community Health also works with 78 counties to provide transit services for seniors and persons with disabilities, she said.

GDOT is wrapping up a 30-year outlook plan set for release next month that will recommend expanding transit services for seniors and others in rural areas, Comer said. But it will take more money to do that, she said.

“It is important to note that absent additional funding it will be more difficult to incentivize counties to participate, making transit expansions and enhancements challenging to implement,” Comer said.

Gooch pointed to a separate measure, House Bill 105, that aims to drum up new funds for public transit via a 50-cent fee on ride-hailing trips. It is estimated to raise between $24 million and $45 million in its first year if passed.

That bill still needs final Senate approval and will have to be amended first to make it clear transit services and not just road construction would qualify for the funds. Gooch said transit officials would track which counties are taking advantage of the new fee-based funds collected from Uber and Lyft.

“I think this is a good first step in setting up some more funding for transit,” Gooch said. “Once the funding’s in place, then we’ll see what kind of demand there might be for some regional coordination.”

The General Assembly hit a pause earlier this month amid the coronavirus outbreak in Georgia, where hundreds of COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in recent days. Lawmakers will return to finish the 2020 session as soon as Ralston and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan decide to summon them back.

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