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Here’s one way officials could make up for loss in federal transit funds
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A Gainesville Connection bus arrives at the administration building on Main Street Wednesday, March 20, 2019. - photo by Scott Rogers

Phillippa Lewis Moss may have found a funding option for Hall Area Transit if federal dollars go away as expected after the 2020 census shows Hall’s population topping 200,000.

Georgia House Bill 511 would allow counties to hold a special purpose local option sales tax strictly for transit.

“I will likely recommend that our community launch a SPLOST particularly after the 2020 census, when we will see less federal operating funds for the transit system,” Moss said in an interview last week.

Moss and other transportation officials have been considering ways to deal with as much as $500,000 loss in annual federal funding for Hall Area Transit, which operates a fixed-route bus service, Gainesville Connection, and Dial-A-Ride, a countywide curbside transportation service that requires reservations at least 48 hours before pickup.

As a public transportation agency now serving a “small urban area,” nearly half of Hall Area Transit’s operating expenses are covered by the Federal Transit Administration.

As Hall climbs above 200,000 people, it gets redefined as a “large urban area” and “would no longer be eligible for that 50 percent match,” Moss has said.

“What people might see with a SPLOST is some really cool, innovative ways to get people around, other than a traditional bus,” said Moss, who, as community service center director, oversees Hall Area Transit.

New York-based Via was contracted by Hall County to conduct a study of microtransit, or a public shuttle service that mirrors app-centered, pick-up services such as Uber and Lyft.

Via released a report in February recommending that microtransit cover the entire county, “providing both a replacement for Dial-A-Ride and some fixed-route services, as well as capturing new riders such as those who currently use a taxi or their own private vehicle.”

The next step for Hall County would be to send out a request for proposals from “actual vendors who would deliver the services,” Moss said.

“What’s been recommended is we do a hybrid system,” Moss said of Via’s report. “It’s been suggested we retain some of our routes that are highly effective and efficient, and for those routes that are not, we would replace them with microtransit.”

Losing the federal funding also comes at a time when transit officials had hoped to expand service, especially with the growing population and employment.

“The concern that our federal funding could significantly decrease … makes our elected officials hesitant to take any action to expand the service,” Moss said.

The legislation has been touted by state Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, who is chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

“Many areas of Georgia, particularly in rural counties with high poverty rates, do not have adequate public transportation services that would allow residents’ access to workforce opportunities, education or health care,” he said in a March 1 press release.

The transit proposal “seeks to consolidate and rebuild the complex structure that manages Georgia’s transit systems, while promoting economic investment.”

One of its key elements is creating the Georgia Department of Mobility & Innovation, which “would consolidate the responsibilities that currently spread across six state-level agencies and authorities.”

One of those losing control would be the Georgia Department of Transportation.

The State Transportation Board passed a resolution Feb. 28 opposing the bill.

The resolution urges lawmakers to preserve the DOT’s transit program and employees and “to further empower the program to coordinate with sister agencies, local governments and service providers in the improved delivery of transit services to all Georgians.”

The DOT’s transit program “has an established history and relationship with the Federal Transit Administration and the over 100 subrecipients throughout the state,” the resolution states.

Moss said she believes the bill would allow DOT “to focus its attention on the highly complicated and technical work of building and maintaining superior roads, bridges and the like.”

At the same time, it would create an agency “dedicated to connecting employees to employers, shoppers to retailers, patients to clinicians, students to schools, citizens to government and families to families.

“This new state agency will be responsible for creating strategies and eliminating barriers which keep gridlock in place and prevent people from fully taking advantage of our great state and all that it has to offer,” Moss said.

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Gainesville Connection buses park at the administration building on Main Street Wednesday, March 20, 2019. - photo by Scott Rogers