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 transportation 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 places] 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 student-centered 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.”