Transportation: A Two-Way Street; Read About TIA & How Georgians Can Voice Their Transportation Needs

Transportation: A Two-Way Street
By Bill Lewis

Georgia is on the brink of a historical moment for transportation – everyone must seize this moment and help shape the future of transportation across the State.

Transportation is a necessity for a better quality of life for you, whether you have a disability or not, live in a rural area or simply don’t have a car. The lack of transportation hampers your freedom to earn a living and achieve a quality of life. That is why the disability community needs to become involved in this issue – now.

Together we can identify and design the accessible transportation options we want and need to achieve independence and inclusion in the community. Participate in roundtable meetings which are being organized statewide. Spread the word. Immerse yourself in this issue because it affects not only the future of Georgia, but your future as well.

“For the first time in recent history, Georgia has developed a business plan for transportation investment, and that plan clearly gives reasoning behind additional investment in transportation,” says Todd Long, director of planning for the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT).

The plan is found in legislation called the Transportation Investment Act (TIA), also known as HB277, a bill that was passed by the 2010 Georgia General Assembly. It creates the opportunity to make transportation more available and accessible to every Georgian.

A little background…

TIA authorizes a 1% transportation sales tax to be voted on by twelve separate regions of the State in the summer of 2012. In other words, the 1% additional tax will be decided within individual regions. It’s entirely possible that one or more regions will vote in favor of the initiative, while others vote “no.

” Only regions voting “yes” will pay the extra penny, but only those regions passing the initiative will benefit from the additional transportation money. And no money raised in one region will be spent in another region. The life of the tax is ten years, and the amount that could possibly be raised varies by region.

Why was TIA passed?

In a recent interview, Tad Leithead, chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), explained how TIA will apply to the Atlanta region: “ARC projects that over the next 30 years our transportation funding needs will be in the neighborhood of $110 billion. We have identified federal resources over that same period of time for about half that. That means we have a shortfall of about $65 billion that we would need to build all of the transportation improvements in this region. The referendum is a fantastic first step towards addressing that shortfall...and prioritizing projects in the region.”

What could the TIA mean to you?

As Pat Nobbie, deputy director of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD) points out, “Transit means having transportation choices in addition to the cars that some residents can’t use or afford. It means greater mobility so that the disability community and others can get to their jobs or medical care and just plain live their lives.”

You have the opportunity to voice your own transportation concerns and regional officials want input from every citizen. If you have trouble getting from Point A to Point B or Points C, D, E, F, etc., now is the time to speak up.

Patricia Puckett, who is the executive director for the State Independent Living Council (SILC) and has a disability, says, “I think the opportunities to improve public transportation are enormous and getting involved in the Regional Roundtable meetings is essential for our community.”

Getting the word out.

“Many feel that this is the most significant transportation legislation ever passed by the Georgia General Assembly. It is essential that everyone be knowledgeable about the bill,” advises GDOT’s Long.

Education is a key factor in the TIA issue.

The Act opens up additional funding sources for transportation, but more importantly, specifies the transportation sales tax can be used for any type of transportation project. For many that means:

• Roads and bridges
• Transit capital and operating needs
• Safety and traffic operations
• Freight and logistics
• Sidewalks, pedestrian and bicycling
• Aviation
Other transportation alternatives

Other transportation alternatives may very well have the most meaning for older citizens and persons with disabilities.

Most of the billions of dollars the tax would generate would go toward specific projects within the region. However, extra flexibility is provided by setting aside: 1) 25% of total available funds for use within each county (and cities in them) outside the Atlanta Regional Commission area, and 2) 15% of total available funds for use within each county (and cities within them) inside the Atlanta Regional Commission area. These funds may be used for any transportation purpose.

Accessible transportation is needed not only for people with developmental disabilities, but for all Georgians, especially those in rural areas. Passage of TIA created the Governor’s Development Council of Rural and Human Services transportation Committee, which brings together and coordinates various state agencies involved in providing transportation for Georgians. These agencies include the Department of Human Services, the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities and the Department of Community Health.

In the future, this committee is expected to make transportation easier for Georgians, as well as more efficient and cost-effective.

Thinking outside the box.

The Transportation Investment Act enables Georgians at grass roots levels to design transportation projects in their communities and offers greater flexibility to residents than ever before. The kicker is, that has to happen now.

Under the TIA legislation, all projects to be funded by the new tax must be approved prior to the vote. Nothing can be added afterwards – if it’s not on the list, it doesn’t get done. Advocates have been criss-crossing the State spreading the word and listening to ideas. Public transportation options headed most lists, but many tangential ideas were discussed as well, including:

• Accessible Taxi Cabs:
There are now only five wheelchair accessible cabs in the State of Georgia. Four are in Atlanta, one in Savannah.
• Mobility Management Call Centers:
This is an idea being developed under the Governor’s Development Council of Rural and Human Services Transportation Committee that would help map out a transportation need with one call. For example, if somebody lives in Alpharetta and wants to go to Conyers, instead of having to call a taxi company, call for a MARTA schedule, check on a bus schedule and arrange taxis at the destination, you would make one call and the Call Center would handle all the arrangements. It’s still convoluted, but it’s only one call instead of several.
• Regional Sidewalks and Bus Shelters:
Just getting basic safety issues like sidewalks and shelters at bus stops on a region-wide basis are issues that need to be brought to the forefront.
• Transit Systems in Rural Areas:
Some in the coastal region thought there should be a mandated amount of their region’s money devoted to transit systems that would serve non-metropolitan areas.

Puckett echoed these sentiments: “These features help everyone – the delivery person, the business person with a roller board suitcase or the parent with a stroller. But for people who use wheelchairs or people who cannot drive for a variety of reasons, accessible routes to accessible public transportation mean the difference between going out or staying home; it’s the difference between surviving on disability benefits or getting a job.”

The Nitty-Gritty.

There are two lists involved in the process of getting TIA to the voters. One is the “Criteria” list and the other is “Non-Criteria.” Projects that appear on the Criteria list have to meet certain guidelines as put forth in the legislation and include roads, bridges and sidewalks, etc.

The Non-Criteria list, while smaller, is also the most flexible and allows for greater innovative ideas. Any type of project can be approved by the regional commission on individual merit alone and not subject to mandated criteria.  

Who is involved in making up the lists?

The Transportation Investment Act requires each region to have a roundtable of elected officials to develop a project list that will be available to voters before they go to the polls. The roundtables include the chairperson of each county commission in the region and one mayor from each county in the region and are to select projects they feel would best benefit the citizens in their region. Once those projects are finalized, they will be the exact ones voters will be deciding on next summer. No new projects can be added to the list once the referendum is passed.

“The roundtables can amend, adopt and approve the projects. The bill clearly places the final authority of project selection in the hands of local leadership,” says Long.

It is essential for Georgians to voice their opinions to the roundtables in their region during the process of making up the lists. It is the roundtables that have the power to address the communities’ transportation needs.

The time to act is NOW.

“One interesting component of this to me is the common focus from diverse groups,” says Nobbie. “The transportation concerns of the elderly are very much in line with the concerns of people with disabilities. And that extends to really anyone without a car or the ability to drive one like teenagers trying to get to a job or school.”

Nobbie suggests everyone ask themselves two basic questions: “Do you use public transportation now?” and “Do you foresee needing some form of it in the future?”

Nobbie says that if the answer to either of those questions is “Yes,” you need to be involved in the transportation dialogue. “Go to a meeting,” she says. “Get your voice heard and put your ideas on the table. Don’t just think about big busses and trains. Think smaller and think specific.”

Keeping your voice heard statewide.

Brunswick resident Alice Ritchhart, who is blind, is state chair of the Georgia Coalition for the Blind, as well as a member of the board of the Statewide Independent Living Council (where she chairs the transportation committee). She agrees with Nobbie, “Everyone concerned should get involved, go to roundtable meetings in your regions, contact your representatives and make sure your projects are kept on the list that will be presented to voters next summer.”

Ritchhart says when the roundtables were first being formed, “We encouraged all residents of Independent Living Centers to attend meetings. And we had three major issues that were important for all regions in the State:

1. Make sure the dollars used for public transportation are earmarked for operating and maintenance expense and not just capital expenditures.
2. Make sure somebody in each transit area was hired specifically to educate people on how to use the public transit system, both those with disabilities and those without disabilities.
3. Make sure people have access: curb cuts, uniform bus signage, lifts on busses, audible announcements and accessible sidewalks.”

Ritchhart reports that some regions fared better than others in including ideas on roundtable lists. In Region 12, for example, “We were lucky,” she says, “because most of the elected officials ‘get it’ already down here.” Projects in other regions didn’t make the cut.

In 2010, the City of Fitzgerald and Ben Hill County showed how it can work with passage of a Special Purpose Local Optional Sales Tax (SPLOST), which included $250,000 for community-based transportation models.

Athens Transit Director Butch McDuffie says one of their priorities is to “enhance the frequency of our service. We only have about 15 or 16 routes that run hourly and we’d like to operate them every 30 minutes. Being a smaller county, that’s a big step in the right direction for us.”

“We have to invest now in transportation alternatives that will boost the region’s economic competitiveness, help attract good jobs and improve quality of life,” says Ray Christman, executive director of the Liveable Communities Coalition. “It’s time to make the investments that will give residents more  transportation choices, more ways to unlock gridlock.”

Many issues make for an interesting vote.

In each of the 12 TIA regions, several counties are involved in the vote. The total vote in each region decides the issue. So if the initiative is defeated in one county but passes easily in another, it’s conceivable some residents of the region will still have to pay the additional 1% even though their particular local county voted against it.

Why would people vote against it? It’s a complicated answer and one full of ironies. For example, as the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC) reported, one metro Atlanta county sees  eight out of every ten residents drive out of the county everyday to their jobs. As the paper points out, that might be reason enough to want extra money for wider highways or more bridges, or even some form of mass transit.

But, other factors are involved as well. As the AJC indicates, “A confluence of a bad economy, the county’s conservative politics and voter fatigue from self-imposed taxes ensures that the vote on the transportation SPLOST will be a tough sell in (this) county.”

On the other side of the economic picture, a statewide commitment to fixing transportation issues is seen as a big plus for business and job growth in Georgia. When the bill was signed into law, Lt. Governor Casey Cagle said, “This bill allows us to tell people and businesses that are looking to move or relocate their company to Georgia that we have a plan to fix transportation and that we are serious about addressing these issues.”

Dave Stockert, president and CEO of Post Properties and chair of the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s transportation policy committee said, “The business community is ready to support the transportation referendum in every way possible as we move into the next phase of this process.”

“Investing in Georgia’s transportation infrastructure is critical to our long-term economic health,” added Phil Jacobs, chair of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce’s transportation committee. “We are pleased that this legislation will allow every region of our State to have a voice in what those investments will be and that it will provide a mechanism to improve upon our State’s many transportation assets.”

Being informed is the key.

To say the least, TIA is a complicated issue. But it’s one that will potentially affect every citizen of Georgia. Gathering as much information as possible and participating in the dialogue is essential to making sure individual voices are heard. The key element right now is to stay involved. Make your concerns known. Decision makers are listening.

And your voice doesn’t have to cease if your region passes the tax. A five-member council will be set up to monitor approved expenditures in each region. It’s important for people with disabilities to be represented on that council. And the best way to make sure that happens is to get voices heard and names known now. Attend meetings whenever possible. Be adamant in your support for issues that affect you most.

“This is a critical time for citizens who care what the shape of the transportation list looks like,” says Christman.

And as Pat Nobbie says, “You won’t get another chance like this.” It is imperative to keep the wheels on the transportation issue turning. Right now, you and all Georgians have a chance to make significant alterations to the fate of the State’s future in transportation. Make your needs heard loudly and clearly.