Teleworking in rural Georgia to become a more viable option
By David Pendered
As the pandemic portends lasting changes in telework patterns, the possibilities of working remotely in rural Georgia may be enhanced as a result of actions already taken this year at the state Capitol.
These rural areas offer plenty of quality-of-life benefits attractive those able to work from home at least a few days a week. The downside is these same regions are so far off the information and paved superhighways that they can’t adequately serve even part time telecommuters.
Results of the 2020 Census are expected to confirm a dwindling number of residents in rural Georgia as folks leave in search of better-paying jobs, access to health care and amenities of a connected world.
Efforts underway this legislative session have heightened the state’s effort to address the mobility and broadband disparities between rural and urban regions.
In coming weeks, two study committees are expected to be formed – one to continue to develop a statewide plan for freight and ecommerce, Senate Resolution 102; and one to examine the potential collaboration and expansion of regional airports, Senate Resolution 84.
Two significant measures already in place involve broadband connectivity and regional airports.
Gov. Brian Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and House Speaker David Ralston put the power of their podiums together to announce a program to provide broadband to 80,000 EMC members, many across a swath of Middle Georgia from Macon toward Atlanta.
The build-out of this initiative is expected to be complete in four to six years, according to Dennis Chastain, president and CEO of Georgia Electric Membership Corp. In addition to the program announced by state leadership, EMCs and broadband providers are collaborating in regions throughout the state. The number is expected to grow.
“Everyone would love for their EMC to jump out and do this, but no one size fits all,” Chastain said. “These EMCs are all individual companies, all are cooperatives, and markets are different. … We do know there are going to be more announcements in the next couple months.”
The announcements are resulting partly from the Legislature’s efforts last year to promote rural broadband.
One effort, Senate Bill 2, gave rural power providers the assurance they need to collaborate with broadband providers to serve under-served and un-served areas.
The second, House Bill 244, authorized the state’s utility regulator, the Public Service Commission, to end an impasse over payments by broadband providers to EMCs for access to poles owned by electric membership cooperatives. The PSC approved a rate structure in December 2020.
Six of Georgia’s regional airports are slated to share in $577 million in additional spending the governor approved in an amended budget signed Feb. 15, Angela Whitworth, treasurer of the Georgia Department of Transportation, said at the Feb. 18 virtual meeting of GDOT’s board. The governor approved the added spending in the budget amended for the fiscal year that ends June 30.
The improvements are the type necessary to support the general aviation aircraft associated with other economic development efforts intended to bolster rural Georgia. If more teleworkers begin to locate in rural Georgia, and the freight and logistics sectors continue to expand, an increase in small-craft air traffic is likely to follow.
These aviation upgrades are the type that often don’t make headlines in metro Atlanta, if only because Atlanta’s airport is so large. In smaller cities and towns, the improvements GDOT intends to help fund are noteworthy:
- Baxley – hanger and taxiway improvements;
- Cordele – construction, obstruction removal;
- Griffin – acquire land for expansion;
- Reidsville – air terminal improvements;
- Vidalia – rehabilitate taxiway;
- Barrow County – rehab and extend taxiway.
In addition to the aviation improvements, Whitworth said, the GDOT’s adjusted midyear budget allocates an additional $144.9 million for construction projects already on the state’s plan. Routine maintenance was increased by $35.2 million, and the fund used to help local governments improve roadways was increased by $15.9 million.
GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry told GDOT’s board that the department’s revenues are lower than expected, due in part to a 28% decrease in the $5-a-night hotel tax collected to help pay for transportation infrastructure. However, Georgia is offsetting the loss with $277 million in federal COVID-related.
Other sources of federal funding haven’t lapsed during the pandemic because Congress appropriated and funded the allocations, McMurry said.