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Thursday, April 06, 2006

I may have spoken too soon...

Yesterday’s regional transportation steering committee meeting went pretty well, despite an apparent disinformation campaign that seems to be going on in the eastern counties that is apparently designed to discredit the Greater East Texas Transportation Alliance (GETTA) as a fair partner in the planning process. There were some surprisingly vehement speeches to the effect that GETTA is some sort of gang of Tyler bully boys whose sole object in all of this is to hog up all the money for Tyler. Statements were made in one breakout session to the effect that GETTA members should not have a vote or have any responsibility for selecting members.

First, when you hear this kind of stuff, you have to wonder what agency or group would most benefit by discrediting GETTA and then you would have to wonder whether that group was involved in spreading such disinformation. One member said firmly that, we are "going to have to deal with GETTA’s bad reputation before we can move on with the process". Evidently a significant group of steering committee members, especially from the smaller unserved counties, feel GETTA needs to be removed as a player and replaced by some agency that covers all 14 counties. Where have I heard that line before? Hmmmmmmmm...

Wow! I have a problem with that big time. Let me lay out the issues we heard and a response to each:

  1. GETTA is about Tyler and only what Tyler needs and doesn’t deserve a special place in the process. First of all, the Texas Department of Transportation has mandated that consumers be represented in the regional transportation planning process! There is only one organization in this region that represents seniors, people with disabilities, low income families, commuters, business and human services as well as providers and government agencies and that is GETTA. East Texas Just Transportation Alliance (ETJTA) does too and is a member of GETTA but while it has a broader membership, participation in ETJTA has been up to now very informal and tends to be in response to some problem or issue. GETTA, however, was organized more formally and has the support of providers, MPO’s and the COG (at least they show up to meetings most of the time). Without GETTA, the regional service planning process would have no “organized” consumer advocacy representation to bird dog the lead agency as a participating member. Everyone on it would merely be providers, and COG appointees. That’s how it was originally set up until GETTA members and stakeholders objected. ETJTA has supported GETTA’s efforts to expand transit in Rusk and Wood County and to obtain the JARC grant for Tyler Transit. We’ve offered to help the rural provider obtain the same funding but were rebuffed. GETTA members have tried to reach out even though we had no funds to do it with. The fact that GETTA hasn’t got members from Camp County yet, doesn’t mean we aren’t working just as hard for them as we are for Smith County. This is an ongoing process and needs time (which we’re out of) to pull in everybody (see recommendations below).
  2. There have to be more than just advocates on GETTA. Well that’s impossible because everyone on GETTA is there as an advocate for their own constituency whether that be seniors, people with disabilities, low income families, business, commuters or economic development leaders. Evidently “advocacy” is a dirty word to some folks on the steering committee (at least the way the word was being used yesterday anyway). Let me define “advocate”. An advocate is someone who speaks on behalf of someone else or a group of someone elses, usually, regular ordinary people – those who would use or benefit from public transportation, for instance. One in 5 East Texans don’t have reliable access to transportation, but most of them can’t get to the meetings to speak up for what they want. It is for that 20% that ETJTA and GETTA speak as well as for the businesses they would patronize if they could and the services they would use and the elections they would vote in. If it were not for advocates speaking loudly and clearly, this steering committee would never have met in the first place. The existing system was just fine as far as the provider community was concerned when we started this process and, though we have a couple of standout providers who have since embraced this coordination effort, it took ADVOCATES to get the ball rolling (or have any of us forgot how bureaucratic inertia works). We’d still be having meetings about having meetings and complaining and getting nothing done and being assured that there wasn’t anything that could be done because the rules wouldn’t permit it. Instead, advocates got up on their hind legs and got something done. During the past two legislatures, we got bills passed that changed things, we changed rules and funding formulas. We pestered lawmakers and public officials, we held meetings, listened to consumers, drove the wheels off our cars, started blogs, websites and e-mail listserves. We went to Washington and Austin on our own dime and testified on behalf of people who need rides in every corner of East Texas while our COG issued resolutions AGAINST CHANGING THE STATUS QUO EVEN THOUGH EAST TEXANS WOULD BE THE MAJOR BENEFICIARIES OF SUCH CHANGE! Advocates deserve a place at the table because without us, the table would not even exist.
  3. 'Advocates’ are a group of cripples, geeks and old people trying to co-opt the system for their own selfish purposes. GETTA as an advocacy group is a coalition that includes people and agencies from consumer and provider communities who believe that better transportation is possible and are willing to stick their necks out to see that it happens. Some of those people who stuck their necks waaaay out were transit providers God bless ‘em! Unfortunately, the tendency has not been universal.
  4. GETTA doesn’t cover all 14 counties. Well, that’s the truth. Would you like to know why. GETTA would like to – you bet! Did we try to include as many as we could? Absolutely. But GETTA had no budget, no staff and did everything we did do as volunteers on our own time, spending our own money. Yeah, we're a local initiative and not ashamed of it. The folks who did have the budget for this, namely the Council of Governments, should have been holding meetings, visiting unserved communities and diversifying services, but they didn’t do it. Instead the COG reduced the number of transit providers down to 1 (from more than a dozen). They made speeches at GETTA saying GETTA had no business even talking about regional coordination because it was ETCOG’s responsibility. Their rural transportation program director stood up at a Regional Conference on Aging and stated that they "didn’t have to make their customers happy; their customers had to make them happy in order to get a ride". GETTA and ETJTA meanwhile, scared up money for transit projects, resource surveys and consumer surveys. We went out to surrounding counties to find out what people needed.

GETTA members have taken a lot of flack over the years because we have pushed, prodded and cajoled legislators, public officials and agencies to create a state supported regional transit planning process going. When we started, we asked why there wasn’t a regional planning process. We were told there was one. I asked who was involved and was told it was the 3 directors of the 3 big transit providers (Tyler Transit, Mini-Bus and ETCOG’s rural transit director). I asked where were the advocacy people, the human services people, the economic development people, the chambers of commerce and the employers with workers who commuted. We were told they weren’t invited because they didn’t “understand transportation issues”. So, a group of us formed East Texas Just Transportation Alliance and when GETTA was formed we joined our efforts with theirs. In the past 7 years we have:

  1. Held public forums on transportation to get a sense of what issues were and to investigate ways to address those issues.
  2. Organized public comment on transportation issues (digging up transportation for transit riders so they could attend and informing everyone we could think of about important issues and where they could comment on them).
  3. Put together agendas and position statements that helped focus local efforts to influence legislation and regulatory change that would make East Texas transit work better.
  4. Facilitated the provision of information to congressmen, senators and legislators both federal and state about the sorry state of transit funding in East Texas. Testified before house subcommittee on transportation in support of the historic House Bill 3588 which fundamentally changed TxDOT for the better.
  5. Provided representation on the state Public Transportation Advisory Committee that changed the funding formula and sharply increased funding for East Texas over the next 3 years that should make transit resources available in the outlying areas of the region if the funds are used wisely. The PTAC representative (me) visited local groups and individuals in Jacksonville, Vernon, Jefferson, Lufkin, Palestine, Rusk County, Marshall, Van and Wood County to talk transportation issues during my tenure on the Committee. I did this with my own money on my own time and was not reimbursed in any way.
  6. GETTA and East Texas Center for Independent Living conducted two pilot surveys of resources and riders in the western counties of the COG with the intent that the process could be repeated in other counties as we were able to organize local initiatives. We have worked with individuals and initiatives in Rusk, Wood and Cherokee counties.
  7. ETJTA and GETTA members worked together with Just Transportation Alliances to obtain a Federal congressional earmark under Job Access and Reverse Commute to increase Tyler Transit hours till midnight (or later) and then led the effort to obtain state toll credits from TxDOT to match the federal dollars. We offered to do the same for ETCOG for a rural JARC project, but were told they weren’t interested in working with us.
  8. Forged an alliance between providers and consumers in support of an organized regional transportation planning process, organized everybody we could get to with our limited resources to be a part of the stakeholder process and agreed to serve as one of the tri-lead agencies when asked by stakeholders who were concerned that some advocacy group should be a part of the lead agency group to provide balance and consumer representation. There was no other similar group available and still isn't for that matter.

For those from unreached counties who feel GETTA isn’t a good representative of their interests, let me make a suggestion. Rather than obstruct the process and throw out the baby with the bath water, how about we do this:

  1. Look around your counties and find what you consider a properly representative group and hold a meeting to organize yourselves.
  2. Contact Just Transportation Alliances. You can talk to Sheila Holbrook-White (512-699-8136) or to me (Tom King – 903-714-2353). We will be glad to provide you with support as you organize a local transportation advocacy group, just like GETTA members did.
  3. Our TxDOT public transportation coordinator helped us organize. Why hasn’t yours done the same in your area? I’d ask if I was you.
  4. Then, let’s approach GETTA about joining your group’s efforts with theirs.

Rather than dilute GETTA (which is more powerful as a local effort than it would be if you spread it out over such a large area), let’s create a partnership among a whole bunch of tough, flexible and active local initiatives like GETTA and then unite their efforts with the other JTA groups statewide. ETJTA would be happy to organize a loose confederation that unites GETTA with other local transportation initiatives throughout the region. I am certain that GETTA would be happy to work with those other initiatives to make sure they are represented in GETTA’s work on the steering committee. We’d need to create some sort of mechanism for that, but it could be very effective and is exactly what GETTA members would like to see get done.

ETJTA is standing by to help in any way we can and you’d be surprised what we can do if we all work together. Hey, maybe they’ll start talking nasty about you guys too. That’s how you know if you’re effective.

But be forewarned. As a member of PTAC, GETTA and ETJTA, I have …..

  • been told repeatedly to shut up
  • been told I know nothing about transportation and so I should shut up
  • been told I was misrepresenting the situation when I stated in a public meeting that there was a transportation shortage in East Texas and I should shut up
  • been told I should submit any statements I planned to make about public transportation in East Texas to ETCOG for review before I make them (or shut up).
  • been told as a member of GETTA that we had no business talking about regional coordination when it was none of our business and that we should just vote on how to spend 5310 funding and shut up!
  • been accused of being “anti-transit”, ignorant and ill-informed (and was advised to “shut up”).
  • been accused of only being a transportation advocate because I wanted a consulting contract from “all of this” (in other words, be paid to shut up!)

There were other things said, but I won’t repeat the impolite, gymnastic or geneological comments I've received – there might be young people reading this post.

Finally, I recognize where all the distrust comes from. I know the history of public transportation and how unevenly it has been available to East Texans. I and fellow GETTA members were part of efforts to change that history.

GETTA is not who you need to be worried about. GETTA has earned a place at the table simply because they can be trusted to include you out there in the hinterlands.

If you’re looking for someone to pull out a chair for anyone who accidently got left out, it’s likely going to be a GETTA member with his hand holding the back of that chair when they sit down.

That’s been the history anyway!

Just one man’s opinion…

I’ll shut up now!

Tom King

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