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County eyeing grant for public transportation
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Newton County workers making the long commute to Atlanta, along with residents who don't have their own vehicles, could be getting a helping hand from the federal government in the form of a rural public transportation system.

The Newton County Board of Commissioners was briefed on a grant available through the Federal Transit Administration called the 5311 Rural and Small Area Program at their last board meeting on Sept. 4. The grant could provide funding for a small fleet of buses and vans operating within the county.

The 5311 Program provides funding to states to distribute to their rural areas to improve, initiate or continue public transportation. According to County Engineer Kevin Walter, the BOC was made aware of the grant some six years ago but at the time chose not to apply for it.

The 5311 Program requires that at least 10 percent of the costs of the program be covered by fares and the remainder split equally between local and federal funding. Capitol expenditures such as the cost of purchasing vehicles must be 95 percent covered by the grant and only 5 percent by local funds.

 If the county were to be approved for the program, it would be allowed a maximum of three vehicles in the first year. According to an authoritative report prepared on the feasibility of applying the 5311 Program to Newton County, the county could pay an annual operating cost for the program in the range of $70,000 for a three-vehicle program to $113,000 for a six-vehicle program.

According to Walter, the maximum occupancy of any vehicle under the program is 18 people. Therefore, the Newton County Public Transportation Program would likely be operating minibuses.

Ruth Miller, an intern with The Center for Community Preservation and Planning, prepared the authoritative report for the board at the request of Walter.

"Newton County is having to grapple with having distinct rural and suburban areas, but this can be put to everyone's advantage," said Miller a recent graduate of The Massachusetts Institute of Technology who wrote her senior thesis paper on the opinions of Newton County residents towards public transportation. "Taking advantage of rural opportunities like the 5311 Program gives us an advantage that isn't available to Gwinnett or DeKalb counties when we compete against them for transportation funds.

In a presentation before the BOC, Miller recommended that the program be used in a two-tiered approach to benefit the county. Miller identified two initial primary users of a public transportation system in Newton County: commuters to Atlanta and those residents without any other means of transportation.

According to 2005 statistics on the county from the U.S. Census Bureau, 61.5 percent of employed Newton County residents work outside of the county. The average mean travel time to work for county residents is 33.6 minutes which is considerably higher than the state average of 27.2 minutes and the national average of 25.1 minutes.

An overwhelming majority of Newton County residents (95.7 percent) travel to work by car, truck or van with 79.8 percent driving alone according to the Census. A depressing 0.0 percent of residents use public transportation to get to work.

That statistic becomes understandable when one takes into account the lack of any public transportation system which passes through the county and connects to either The Georgia Regional Transportation Authority bus service or the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority rail and bus lines.

GRTA comes as far as Conyers with a West Conyers stop at Sigman Road. MARTA's rail line only comes as far east as the Indian Creek station in DeKalb County. MARTA's bus line comes as far east as Stonecrest Mall.

Miller's report recommends assigning some minibuses to serving Atlanta-bound commuters during peak travel time hours, taking the commuters as far as the GRTA stop in Conyers and thus allowing them to benefit from the entire GRTA system.

Aside from shuttling commuters to Conyers, the report recommends providing bus service to those without any other means of transportation through a 72-hour call-ahead notification system.

Similar to other 5311 program participants, Newton County's program could provide on-call service with 72-hours notification to such frequented destinations as DeKalb Tech, Georgia Perimeter College, the Newton County Library, the Covington Square and the Newton County Department of Mental Health.

"A commuter service in partnership with GRTA would only need to operate in the early morning and afternoon of weekdays, thus providing no competition for on-call vehicles during the remainder of the weekday and the entirety of the weekend," reads the report.

The report recommends in the preliminary stages of the program, assigning one or two minibuses to transporting commuters to Conyers during pre-designated and advertised times with the remainder used for on-call services.

"As one or the other gains in popularity, vehicles could be appropriated as necessary. To balance demand for vehicles, price-based incentives could be offered to encourage on-call trips in the uncontested hours," reads the report.

According to information made available through GDOT, other 5311 Program counties have set up varying fare schemes for passengers. Burke County charges $2 in fares with $1 per extra stop after the initial fare. Columbia County charges $3 in fares for every one-way trip for adults, $2 for seniors and $1 for additional stops. Hancock County charges $1 for every one-way passenger trip in the city and $3 for a round trip in the county.

Now that the BOC has been briefed on the program, it will next be shared with the general public through stakeholder meetings on The Comprehensive Transportation Plan in October and in November at The Center for Community Preservation and Planning. If the public is generally in support of the program, Walter will bring the BOC a grant application to approve.

"I think one of the goals of The Comprehensive Transportation Plan is to see how we can reduce traffic congestion and our contribution to ozone pollution in Atlanta, which is a real problem, so we can have the best chance to qualify for federal transportation grants to improve our roads," Walter said.

During the initial presentation of the 5311 Program on Sept. 4, the majority of commissioners were receptive to implementing the program in Newton County. District 2 Commissioner Earnest Simmons expressed some concerns that the public demand for a public transportation system might overwhelm the system in its first year if only three vehicles were made available.

If the county is approved for the grant, a public transportation system could be up in running as early as January 2008, though Miller speculates that unless public support is overwhelming a likelier start date would be January 2009.