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Hall transit funding needs rethinking, director says
Chance to tap federal money could fade without matching funds
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Eddie Martinez boards the Gainesville Connection on Thursday afternoon at a stop along Mundy Mill Road in Oakwood. The Gainesville resident does not drive and always takes the bus to go shopping.

Eddie Martinez of Gainesville enjoys the Gainesville Connection routes between Gainesville and Oakwood, but he would like to see Hall Area Transit extend its reach.

“I’d like to see it go to the Kroger (shopping center on Winder Highway) — that’s a good place to shop,” the Gainesville resident said while waiting last week for a bus on Mundy Mill Road in Oakwood near such busy stores as Walmart and Sam’s Club.

That’s the kind of talk Phillippa Lewis Moss hears a lot. And when the director of the Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Center tells people about the lack of fixed-route bus service in a particular area, the message usually doesn’t go over well.

“When I tell them there’s a (funding) split between (Gainesville and Hall County), that the county does this and the city does that, they’re like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”

Increasing demand in unserved areas has prompted Moss to appeal to area officials to “rethink how we do local funding for transit” and with some urgency, as federal dollars that could be tapped are slipping away.

“In just over a decade, Gainesville-Hall County has forfeited over $6 million dollars in federal funds for urban transit services,” Moss said.

The transit service’s 2015 federal allocation is $1.5 million.

“We are only going to ask for half of that ... because we don’t have a local match to bring the other half,” Moss said, speaking recently to a group of area elected officials that directs the Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization, the area’s lead transportation planning agency.

That’s been the trend over the years and, as a result, “the gap between where our system is and where our system should be and can be is huge,” she said.

Several years ago, Gainesville and Hall County jointly funded Hall Area Transit’s fixed-route bus service — formerly known as Red Rabbit — and Dial-A-Ride, which takes riders directly to where they want to go for a mileage-based fare.

Then, about two years ago, the two governments decided to change that arrangement, with Gainesville providing local dollars for Gainesville Connection and Hall County helping to fund Dial-A-Ride.

“Honestly, they would be more powerful combined,” Moss said. “It’s just that there are some logistics, some dynamics and some agreements we would need to smooth over so that both entities felt very comfortable and felt they were getting their money’s worth.

“As it stands now, the way we operate is not very efficient, not very effective.”

But Moss said she doesn’t expect Gainesville to foot the entire bill, “particularly if (the bus service) is intended to serve the entire community, but if it were shared, we could start to pull down more of those state and federal funds.”

Upon finding out that 20 percent of Gainesville Connection routes are in Oakwood, traveling by or through such places as University of North Georgia and Walmart, Oakwood City Manager Stan Brown said he’d be “open to discussions … to work out a fair contribution.”

However, “we’re not in a position to go half and half with Gainesville,” he said.

Brown agreed with Moss’ call for funding talks, especially given the federal dollars left behind.

“And I think we’re going to see more and more need for transit as time goes on, with the growth that we’re seeing,” he said.

Also, Moss said, many of the people moving to Hall are retirees who hail from “communities where (public) transportation is abundant.”

Richard Mecum, Hall County Board of Commissioners chairman, said he believes transit funding decisions shouldn’t be hasty.

“I think there are several things we’d like to find out and learn more about what needs to be done as far as transportation,” he said. “There are some areas that are heavily populated and some areas that are not.”

But, as far as federal matching money goes, time may not be on Hall’s side.

Federal officials reduce allocations after years of seeing money go untouched, Moss said.

“Our original allocation, roughly in 2004, was $2 million to $3 million,” she said. “But as they start to see our spending (habits) ... they spread the money around (to other systems).

“There’s no point setting aside money for Gainesville-Hall County if they’re not going to spend it.”

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