Jan. 21--As state lawmakers, lobbyists and activists begin their annual political tango under the gold dome in Atlanta, one piece of legislation that is in the works would expand Chatham Area Transit's service area county-wide.
That would change the transit tax district so all county residents -- including those in Pooler, Port Wentworth, Bloomingdale and Tybee Island -- would begin paying the ad valorem tax that supports CAT.
Currently, CAT operates in the city of Savannah, parts of Garden City, Thunderbolt and unincorporated areas of the county, but much of Chatham County's growth has been westward to cities like Port Wentworth and Pooler, where a large outlet mall is under construction and is expected to create jobs and attract other businesses and traffic.
Expanding the district and the subsequent tax collections may be easier said than done as efforts to implement public transportation in those outlying areas have previously been resisted.
In the latest effort, officials from multiple government bodies have been working behind the scenes for more than a year to get the district expanded. In addition, calls to Chatham County's state legislators soliciting their help in passing required local legislation have been made over the past several months.
Nearly a quarter of CAT's revenue is generated by the tax district as it is currently drawn, making it second only to grants in regard to funding sources.
CAT needs the money that would be generated by the expanded tax district to help dig itself out of debt amassed under past private management and to become financially stable going forward.
A plan recently proposed to Savannah officials to extend streetcar service into the Historic District, which would have been funded in part by a newly created tax allocation district on new redevelopment in West Savannah, was met with less than enthusiasm.
On Jan. 10, CAT reportedly made its first payment of $1.5 million toward reducing its $7.7 million line of credit to $6 million. An outstanding balance of $7.5 million had existed as of Dec. 31, 2013.
After CAT was created in the 1980s, ridership increased at a consistent rate. But the loss of federal and state support for public transit in the intervening years has played a substantial part in CAT's later struggles, according to officials.
"It is difficult for a service-oriented business to evolve with funded uncertainty each year," stated a five-year transportation development plan approved last year by the CAT board of directors.
"A multi-year local funding scenario should be established with a base ad valorem level that provides for maintaining existing services, venture capital to initiate new services and a secured level of capital and operating reserves."
Following county commissioners approval of a .141 mill increase to CAT's millage rate last June, property owners within the transit district currently pay 1.001 mills. So an owner of a $300,000 home in the district, assessed at 40 percent of the fair market value, pays about $120 per year in transit district taxes.
Those who live outside the district do not pay the tax.
Savannah Alderwoman Mary Osborne, who sits on the CAT board, said CAT has been penalized because of the exclusion of buses in certain parts of the county.
"I think we should be able to take public transportation through every municipality in the Chatham County area," Osborne said during a Dec. 23 Savannah City Council workshop. "I don't think they should have the right to exclude people to get to jobs."
CAT's executive director, Chad Reese, did not respond to requests for comments concerning expansion of the tax district.
A tough sale
In January 1987, CAT was created by the Georgia General Assembly to counter declining ridership, poor service and high fares under the city-run Savannah Transit Authority.
Though it is an independent public agency, CAT's transit tax district was established under state law by the county commission, which levies the tax. Each municipality has a choice on whether to join the transit authority.
Reese inquired over the summer about the county commission's authority to levy the tax, according to documents obtained from a public records request by the Savannah Morning News. But he was informed by CAT's attorney that only the commission has discretion over the tax.
"...The transit district tax is the commission's tax -- not CAT's tax," wrote Ty Butler.
A commission resolution in 1996 to expand the tax district to include all the municipalities went nowhere. Supporters argued public transit is a public necessity. Opponents countered that there was no demand for the service. State legislation to expand the boundaries of the tax district would need to be introduced as a local bill and agreed upon by Chatham County's delegation at the Capitol, which would all but guarantee its passage by the General Assembly as it is a local issue.
On Jan. 9, a meeting between Reese, CAT lobbyist Mike Vaquer and county staffers was held to discuss what part the county will need to play, including the redrawing of the district's boundaries.
Vaquer, who is also lobbying to get the state's rental car tax modified to help fund public transit operations, has been pitching the expansion plan to members of the county's delegation.
"...Getting some limited traction on the single county TSPLOST...more as I work forward on this issue..." he wrote Reese in a Jan. 6 email.
Vaquer did not respond to a request for comment.
Sometime between late summer and early fall last year, a handful of state lawmakers met for dinner at Ruth's Chris Steak House on Bay Street with Eli Karatassos, a CAT consultant, and some CAT board members, including Chairman Pete Lakakis, who explained why they believe the expansion of the district is important.
State Sen. Lester Jackson, D-Savannah, who has also discussed regional transportation with commission Chairman Al Scott, said last week he remains noncommittal but is open to talking with all the municipalities.
"We have to get away from our traditional thinking about public transportation," he said. "In other major cities, especially in the northeast and out west, many people use public transportation to go to and from work."
Savannah Alderman Tom Bordeaux told fellow city council members at the Dec. 23 workshop that Republican state Sen. Buddy Carter of Pooler would be key to getting the district expanded.
Carter says he wants to hear what Pooler officials and residents have to say about joining the district before he makes a final decision.
"I was Pooler mayor for nine years and know how we felt back then," Carter said. "Things have changed since then."
Bordeaux, however, expressed some trepidation about viewpoints in the area. He suggested west Chatham County residents are fearful of CAT buses transporting increased crime to their doorsteps.
"They think people ride through and go right to homes and steal TVs and carry them on the buses," he said at the workshop.
According to CAT, 81 percent of its riders are low-income and depend on public transportation.
CAT's expansion plan is aimed at tapping into the market of new businesses sprouting up west of Savannah, especially in Pooler and Garden City. An express bus service to the airport was introduced in late 2013.
Pooler, with about 20,000 residents, has experienced exponential growth in population and businesses.
"Large warehousing and manufacturing sectors are continuing to develop in this area, as well as in unincorporated Chatham County west of Savannah," states CAT's proposed West-Side Workforce Initiative directed at companies in Pooler, Garden City, Port Wentworth and Bloomingdale.
"As new employers come online and create increasing demand for transit service (primarily for hourly/shiftwork), the viability of serving these areas with fixed route services will increase."
Three modes of transportation have been proposed to service the district if it is expanded, according to notes on the CAT service expansion obtained by the Savannah Morning News.
Under a commuter vanpool program, employers would offer incentives to encourage employees to travel to work together. A fixed bus route is also suggested as an option for major employers.
Another idea is to implement a bus route that would travel along Pooler Parkway and U.S. Highway 80, which could be modified to serve Dean Forest Road and Parsons Avenue. It would also make connections to existing fixed routes on Benton Boulevard or Augusta Avenue. Service would operate from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Another suggestion is to use smaller vehicles that could pick up riders at their homes. Customers, according to the plan, could be given the ability to make advance reservations. Service would operate from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Bill Broker, a CAT board member, said at a November meeting that expansion of the tax district is less about adding more revenue and more about increasing the demand for service. The state, he said, has all but walked away from funding transit services.
"It's really more about having a well integrated service and being able to get everyone in this county to the places they need to go everywhere in this county," he said.
"We've got to do something about this sort of patchwork scenario we have in respect to where we have service and where we don't have service."
In March 2013, Chatham County Commission Chairman Al Scott asked Tom Thomson, executive director of the Chatham County-Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission, what arguments could be made to the city of Pooler, where Scott lives, in favor of an expanded CAT taxing district.
According to an email, Thomson said his transportation staff put forth the following six ideas:
_A number of large employers are in or near the city, including Gulfstream, Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport, Mitsubishi and JCB.
_New residents may expect public transportation in their new hometown.
_Vanpooling or carpooling may be a way for CAT to establish a presence without or in advance of the state legislation.
_Public transportation in the past has been a "serious consideration" for companies looking to expand to Pooler.
_Infrastructure at the airport, an important job center, could serve as a hub for transit services in the area.
_Traffic congestion, including on Pooler Parkway, will "limit the development potential or attractiveness for growth," making public transportation more appealing for services and retail. Increased fuel prices also make public transit an attractive alternative.
Copyright 2014 - Savannah Morning News, Ga.