House Representative Kevin Tanner brought an ongoing conversation about transportation to northeast Georgia on Thursday, meeting with a commission he chairs that is focused on studying statewide transit needs and analyzing ways for the state to plan and provide for those needs.
The 16-member House Commission on Transit Governance and Funding met at Amicalola Falls State Park Lodge in Dawsonville. The commission was created during last year’s legislative session and Gov. Nathan Deal appointed Tanner, R-Dawsonville, as chairman in May 2017.
Tanner said last year that transit tops the list of his priorities because Georgia is expected to grow by 2 million people over the next few years, with much of that growth concentrated in metro counties.
"We've got to find alternatives, which could include light rail, heavy rail, bus systems, express lanes...when people hear transit they automatically think of MARTA, but this includes much more than heavy rail," Tanner said.
The commission began meeting last June and has met seven times so far, in locations around Atlanta, at the MARTA headquarters, the state capitol and Columbus State University.
This was the first time the commission has branched out to a rural setting for the meeting, which was fitting as a large portion of the discussion focused specifically on rural transit and its obstacles.
The discussion was important for many on the commission who have little background in rural challenges as they hail from urban areas or manage transit structures in highly populated regions, where needs drastically differ from Dawson County, which has a population of under 25,000.
Tanner said last May that that though the commission’s main focus is on the metro counties where population and traffic congestion is expected to continue to increase, there will be some focus on rural counties that have some kind of transit.
At the meeting Thursday, he explained why it is so difficult to get mass transit to work in rural Georgia, beyond issues with funding sources and differences in inspection requirements and service areas for state agencies that provide transit assistance.
“One of the problems in rural Georgia...because the population is more dispersed, you’ve got 118 counties (considered rural) and a lot of these counties are smaller.” Tanner said. “It’s difficult to provide service in those counties at a cost-effective manner because you’re driving so many miles just to pick up one person.”
Because of that, rural Georgia is missing out.
“One of their major issues is they’re losing employers, they’re not able to get good opportunities for economic development, their average educational level is decreasing... one of the reasons is people don’t have adequate transportation to actually get to the adult learning center, to get to the technical school to get the education they need to get on their feet,” Tanner said.
A panel discussion including Chattahoochee Technical College President Ron Newcomb and his assistant for strategic initiatives, Trina Boteler, reaffirmed that economic and workforce development in Georgia is affected by a lack of rural transit options.
“From our perspective there is a transit gap,” Newcomb said. “It affects our ability to provide full-path access to what we do.”
Chattahoochee Tech has eight campuses, spread out from Marietta to Jasper. Boteler said that among the 10,000 students at the college, most do not attend classes at just one campus.
The college also has a successful online component, but some courses, like welding or cosmetology, can’t be taught solely online. Lack of access to affordable transportation directly impacts the school’s enrollment.
“Most of our students do have their own cars, I think a lot of our experience with our students even with their own cars is they often don’t have the money to pay for gas, they don’t have the money to fix the car,” Boteler said.
She said the college expects that out of the 10,000 students enrolled, 500 of those will have dropped out by the end of the term.
“A lot of them will have dropped because they cannot get to campus,” she said.
Though various grants, including the Pell grant, include money for transportation, there is no guarantee that students will use the funds for that purpose.
Newcomb asked the commission to think not just about the number of students who will drop out of his college, but those who never enrolled because of a lack of transportation and therefore will not have the opportunity to gain skills and contribute to the local economy.
“Much of the federal money goes to things such as transportation to the elderly, low income and disabled. I’m sorry, where was the word workforce?”