Com­mu­nity coali­tion mulls lo­cal tran­sit

The Covington News - - NEWS - SAN­DRA BRANDS sbrands@cov­news.com

It’s the one thing al­most ev­ery church and com­mu­nity group says: Newton County needs a trans­porta­tion sys­tem, said Ta­mara Richard­son, Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor of the faith-based Ac­tion Min­istries.

“As far as Ac­tion Min­istries is con­cerned, it’s im­por­tant to get some pub­lic trans­porta­tion here,” she said. “So many of our guests can’t get to a gro­cery store, a food pantry, a job or an ap­point­ment. They don’t have ac­cess to fresh food, fresh veg­eta­bles. [Trans­porta­tion] is ex­tremely high on our radar as a glar­ing need in our com­mu­nity.”

If ini­ti­ated a mass tran­sit sys­tem would make a tremen­dous dif­fer­ence in the com­mu­nity, Richard­son said.

“This need for trans­porta­tion is some­thing I’ve seen as long as I’ve lived in the Cov­ing­ton/Newton area [in 2005],” said Cov­ing­ton res­i­dent Mau­rice Carter. “In the old days, when peo­ple lived around the Square, there was a gro­cery store and a drug store.”

How­ever, as shop­ping cen­ters and ser­vices moved fur­ther away from the Square, the need for pub­lic trans­porta­tion rose, he said. “Peo­ple need an op­tion. As peo­ple age, some have plenty of money but they aren’t able to drive. Younger peo­ple and mil­len­ni­als don’t want to live in com­mu­ni­ties where they have to have a car.”

Richard­son said she is very ex­cited about the trans­porta- tion ini­tia­tive the com­mu­nity coali­tion is un­der­tak­ing. The fa­cil­i­ta­tor of the June meet­ing, Dean Johnny Jones of Ge­or­gia Perime­ter Tech­ni­cal Col­lege’s Newton cam­pus will be one of the peo­ple spear­head­ing the ef­fort to cre­ate a trans­porta­tion sys­tem in the county. Jones, who started at GPTC in fall, had been helped cre­ate a trans­porta­tion sys­tem in Le­flore County, Mis­sis­sippi to ben­e­fit stu­dents, as well as the pub­lic.

“The fact is this trans­porta­tion project here is sim­i­lar to one I worked on in the Mis­sis­sippi Delta,” Jones said. Jones was em­ployed at Mis­sis­sippi Val­ley State Col­lege in Itta Bena. “It’s ru­ral with con­nec­tions to ur­ban, and we can work with neigh­bor­ing coun­ties to de­velop a mass tran­sit sys­tem unique to Newton County.”

A COALI­TION FORMS

At the June meet­ing, rep­re­sen­ta­tives from faith groups, com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tions, gov­ern­ment and GPTC met to dis­cuss Newton County and the need for the trans­porta­tion ini­tia­tive. There had been ear­lier meet­ings, but in June, Jones and GPTC of­fered to help form a com­mit­tee from the dif­fer­ent groups to write the grants.

Trans­porta­tion, he told at­ten­dees, is the key to com­mu­nity and ob­tain­ing grants and set­ting up the sys­tem will take the en­tire com­mu­nity to ac­com­plish. He said it would take data and ideas, as well as a lot of hard work, to for­mu­late a grant pro­posal by De­cem­ber 2016, when a ma­jor grant is opened for ap­pli­ca­tions.

The meet­ing brought a di­verse group of peo­ple to­gether, ac­cord­ing to Laura Ber­tram, Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor of Newton County Com­mu­nity Part­ners, at­tract­ing “ev­ery­one from faith-based or­ga­ni­za­tions to in­di­vid­u­als to rep­re­sen­ta­tives from schools and gov­ern­ment, and busi­ness peo­ple, which is ex­ceed­ingly pos­i­tive,”

Be­tram said Mark Wil­liams, Tran­sit Di­rec­tor for Mor­gan County, spoke to the gath­er­ing and shared the story of how his county had re­ceived fed­eral funds to cre­ate a mass tran­sit sys­tem. “They’ve been do­ing this for about 12 years,” she said. “It be­gan as a ser­vice for se­niors. Now, only about 20 per­cent of the trips are for se­niors.

“We’re talk­ing about lo­cal county trans­porta­tion or per­haps a small re­gional thing, where we can part­ner with Wal­ton County, Rock­dale County, Mor­gan County to see how we can get mem­bers across our county lines,” she said.

Be­tram said one of the keys to the suc­cess of the Mor­gan County tran­sit sys­tem is the Board of Com­mis­sion­ers (BOC) sup­ports the tran­sit pro­gram.

“We have to build that pub­lic will in the con­stituency through the [Newton County] BOC for the project here. We want to make trans­porta­tion af­ford­able,” she said. “Right now, peo­ple who don’t have money [for a car] have to pay friends and rel­a­tives [to take them plac- es] and that’s ex­pen­sive and it takes time.”

“My dis­trict des­per­ately needs it,” said Dis­trict 3 Com­mis­sioner Nancy Schulz. “A lot of peo­ple in my dis­trict don’t have ve­hi­cle. There aren’t side­walks, so they don’t feel safe to walk dis­tances. It is some­thing stu­dents and the el­derly des­per­ately need, some sort of trans­porta­tion sys­tem, in the county.

“I think it’s a great idea,” she said.

Jones said GPTC has an em­bry­onic tran­sit project op­er­at­ing now. “We’re test­ing it out and we’re look­ing at the trial re­port.

SERV­ING ALL AGES

“Ge­or­gia Pied­mont Tech­ni­cal Col­lege is a stu­dent­cen­tered in­sti­tu­tion, and we reg­u­larly ask them how we can help them suc­ceed,” he said. “We know from sev­eral stu­dent town hall meet­ings that Dr. Si­mama has hosted at the Newton Cam­pus that trans­porta­tion is a bar­rier for many of our stu­dents. Our stu­dents want to ar­rive on time and at­tend class—hav­ing more trans­porta­tion op­tions would ben­e­fit them.”

The next step for the ini­tia­tive is to gather let­ters of sup­port, Be­tram said. The let­ters can be mailed to her at nccp@bell­south.net. She said the group was gath­er­ing data rang­ing from how the lack of pub­lic trans­porta­tion af­fects the safety and well-be­ing of Newton County res­i­dents, the num­ber of se­niors, the num­ber of peo­ple liv­ing in low-in­come com­mu­ni­ties, and the cor­re­la­tion be­tween un­em­ploy­ment and lack of trans­porta­tion.

They will also look at how lack of pub­lic trans­porta­tion and make it dif­fi­cult for youth who want to take part in ath­let­ics and other ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties.

Grants the coali­tion will be look­ing at in­clude the Ur­ban Trans­porta­tion for coun­ties with pop­u­la­tions over 50,000, and the com­pet­i­tive Trans­porta­tion In­vest­ment Gen­er­at­ing Eco­nomic Re­cov­ery (TIGER) grant pro­gram.

Jones em­pha­sized that the ini­tia­tive had to be part of a broad-based coali­tion in­volv­ing the county, the cities, the school sys­tem and higher in­sti­tutes of ed­u­ca­tion, law en­force­ment, crim­i­nal jus­tice, the Depart­ment of Chil­dren and Fam­ily Ser­vices, pub­lic health and med­i­cal com­mu­nity, the depart­ment of la­bor, the North­east Ge­or­gia Re­gional Con­nec­tion and Coun­cil on Aging, So­cial Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion, non­prof­its and faith-based or­ga­ni­za­tions, Depart­ment of Com­mu­nity Af­fairs, At­lanta Re­gional Com­mis­sion, Metro At­lanta Rapid Tran­sit Au­thor­ity and Park and Ride Ser­vices, and the Ge­or­gia Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion.

“Cre­at­ing a tran­sit sys­tem that meets the needs of the com­mu­nity is a col­lab­o­ra­tive ef­fort,” Jones said. “It will in­volve peo­ple from the cities, the county and the com­mu­nity.”

For Carter, the June meet­ing left him feel­ing op­ti­mistic. “Maybe this isn’t a pipe dream,” he said. “Maybe this is doable.”

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