This article is exclusive to AllOnGeorgia.
Georgia’s transit system is plagued with bureaucratic red tape that weaves together six state agencies, 27 planning agencies, and 95 local agencies that many in elected office say needs changing, but even the slightest tweaks often come with a cost to taxpayers, many times in hopes that it will save funds in the long run.
State Representative Kevin Tanner, who also serves as the House Transportation Committee Chairman, is leading the charge on transit reform this year after two years of studying how the state operates. He says Georgia needs an overhaul and it’s time to try something new.
The question of whether transit needs are a priority in the state –or even need to be –is one that has been debated by various entities over the past few years, but recent statistic show there is a case to be made comparatively against other states. The Atlanta Regional Commission reports that Georgia ranks 37th in the nation for transit funding per capita and 45th in spending per trip. Additionally, Georgia received a ‘D-” on the “Infrastructure Report Card,” where the American Society of Civil Engineers said that “collaboration between governments is needed to establish a truly regional, accessible transit system in Georgia.”
“It’s not about government doing it,” Tanner said of the bill. “It’s about having a mechanism to think outside the box and think outside the box, partnering with the private sector. I do think government has to be involved in some way because all of these government funds are already being spent.”
For those reasons, among others, Tanner has been pushing House Bill 511 which seeks to create the Georgia Department of Mobility and Innovation (GMobile) and streamline the transit services under the Department of Transportation (GDOT), the Department of Human Services (DHS), the Department of Behavior Health & Developmental Disabilities, and the Department of Community Health DCH). The Governor would appoint a Commissioner to oversee the projects who would coordinate the state and federal funding provisions while eliminating the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA) and moving the State Road and Tollway Authority and ATL (formerly MARTA) to GMobile.
HB 511 would also:
- Add an excise tax for-hire ground transport trips – limousines, rideshare, taxi services, and transportation referral services – and the money is to be put back into transit projects around the state.
- 50¢ would be levied upon any for-hire ground transport trip and 25¢ upon any shared for-hire ground transport trip
- These companies would be required to provide the state with quarterly statistics on the number of trips were made. Companies who don’t comply would be penalized with a $10,000 fine.
- Streamline services into the Transit Link Division to administer small-urban and rural public transit (RPT), human services transportation (HST), and Medicaid non-emergency transportation (NEMT) programs.
- Divide the state into 9 mobility zones, each with a Mobility Manager responsible for zone activities and who reports directly to GMobile Commissioner
- Each Mobility Zone includes at least one urban hub city and surrounding rural counties.
- For example: Bulloch, Bryan, Screven and other counties would be partnered with Chatham and Glynn and Evans & Tattnall would be partnered with Laurens County as well as others.
- See lines 833-854 for zone breakdowns by county
- Each mobility zone would have a “Mobility Zone Advisory Council” comprised of local elected representatives who would approve regional transit plans and project lists.
- Allow individual counties to implement an additional transit SPLOST – conditional upon the county’s project list being approved by the Mobility Zone Advisory Council. This would be in addition to transportation SPLOSTs approved locally.
“What’s good for Atlanta is good for South Georgia, and what’s good for South Georgia is good for Atlanta. We all have to pull together, Tanner said.”
The overarching goal is to improve transit in the metro areas and fill the gap in rural areas where public transportation is not an option. Current statistics have 36 counties without public transportation, impacting more than one million Georgians.
The bill also proposes three pilot programs, including:
- A 3-year pilot program for a $100 per month, per new employee tax credit to employers that provide a transit benefit program to potential employees in order to use transit to travel to or from work
- A 3-year pilot program for providing vouchers for the use of transit to the unemployed and underemployed. This would only be available in counties with an unemployment rate at 125 percent or greater than the state’s average or per capita income of less than 75 percent of the state’s average
- A 3-year, $1.5 million competitive program to provide three $500,000 grants for new microtransit service in three different ATL Transit Districts
The pilot program for tax credits would be limited to unemployed persons so as to incentivize businesses to get people to work in cases where the only barrier to employment is transportation.
The hopeful result is a streamlined administrative process that incentivizes the private sector to provide the services with flexibility. Chairman Tanner told AllOnGeorgia that some private entities are already providing transportation for employees and it is working well. A company in Hall County has purchased transit buses and they pick up employees for work and take them back home every day.
“We’ve talked with Uber and Lyft and private providers and they’re very interested in partnering with this plan to go out and have central pick-up points in these other communities to get people [to work],” Tanner said. “It would be up to the business and it would be up to the community to create the plan. This simply creates the mechanism for outside-the-box thinking.”
And the state is spending the state and federal money, anyway, Tanner says. The current transit state employees would be moved to GMobile mobility zones who would partner with tech schools and businesses in the community to utilize the funding dedicated by the state, plus the additional revenue raised, to implement the ideas created locally.
As for the tax credits, Tanner said they would easily be recouped, and then some, by the state income taxes paid by people who become employed because of the transit options made available.
The measure passed overwhelmingly in the House on Crossover Day in a vote of 159-11, but the opposition has been vocal and in some ways, close to home for Tanner as chair of the House Transportation Committee. The Georgia State Transportation Board, which oversees GDOT, has publicly opposed HB 511 because the consolidation of agencies would mean GDOT would lose 22 transit-related employees as well as the oversight of the State Road & Tollway Authority, which is a piggy bank for state toll roads, to GMobile.
But will it work? Tanner is optimistic about trying something new. “Let’s try it for three years, measure it, and go back and look at it. If it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else,” Tanner said.
“At the end of the day, if it’s good government, we streamline the bureaucracy, and make things work more efficiently and effectively, and we bring people off unemployment and on to the employment rolls, it gives us more dollars in state government that can benefit everyone.”
Neither Governor Kemp nor Lt. Governor Geoff Duncan have taken a position on HB 511.
The Senate is expected to take the bill up this week. It’s been assigned to the Senate Transportation Committee chaired by Senator Brandon Beach. You can read the 73-page bill in its entirety here.