Nov 5, 2015

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Natural Resources Defense Council: Lessons from Atlanta on First and Last Mile Connections

by | Nov 5, 2015

By Logan Sand, Intern, Natural Resources Defense Council

The existing and expanding transit system in the Denver region will only be successful if all residents can easily and safely access the station areas. Many of the RTD stations are lacking critical infrastructure and connections to meet the needs of residents. Addressing these First and Last Mile Connections (FLMC) deficiencies are an important part of the Mile High Connects work plan. FLMC refers to the facilities, infrastructure, and services that allow people to get from their front door to their final destination via transit without driving a personal vehicle. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) conducted national research, resulting in three case studies that examine innovative ideas, replicable models, and collaborative partnerships to consider in the Denver region. The first body of research and case study takes place in Atlanta, GA.

In 2013, the spread out Sun Belt city of Atlanta was coined the “Sultan of Sprawl”. Ineffective and disconnected mass transit correlated to nationally recognized issues around social immobility. The mere separations and distances between rich and poor neighborhoods represented a faltering urban and suburban social fabric of the otherwise “economically thriving” region. Low-income and communities of color suffered the most from the transit system gaps and inefficiencies. After being subjected to some negative attention and publicity the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), the City of Atlanta, and the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) have tightened individual and collaborative efforts to improve FLMC strategies, programs, and policies.

MARTA recently dedicated $550,000 to last mile improvements at 26 identified stations that include: $100,000 for bike parking, $150,000 for curb channels to move bikes up stairwells, $150,000 for pedestrian accessibility improvements, and $150,000 for wind shelters. In early 2013, MARTA launched a new transit¬-oriented development program that converted excess parking lots into strategic and desirable real estate. Included in the transit-oriented development (TOD) policies, 20 percent of new development or redevelopment was allocated to affordable housing. The City of Atlanta took the lead on planning, designing, and implementing the Atlanta Streetcar. The Atlanta Streetcar began operating in December 2014 with the purpose to connect east and west downtown Atlanta, and serve as a compliment to local and regional transportation systems. While these developments are having positive impacts, they have not solved Atlanta’s infrastructure problems.

ARC addresses regional poverty through policies and equity performance measures in the regional plan. The Livable Centers Initiative (LCI) is ARC’s competitive planning grant program. As part of LCI, ARC created the Equitable Target Area (ETA) Index to address environmental justice issues in the region. ETAs are based on five demographic and socioeconomic parameters to facilitate project prioritization and evaluation, resource allocation, and regional and local decision-making. ETA analyses are used in LCI applications for proposals and project submissions, and also to subsequently assist in ARC’s grantmaking decisions. ARC also participates in the TransFormation Alliance to partner with nonprofits, developers, banks, transit providers and government agencies committed to forging innovative solutions that address issues of economic vitality, job creation, equity and opportunity within a framework of well-planned TOD. The Poverty, Equity, and Opportunity Committee of the TransFormation Alliance is tasked with developing a strategic inventory of organizations working to address poverty in the region through policy development. The committee cultivates web-based tools and fact sheets that show key indicators related to poverty by county.

As Denver moves forward, several useful recommendations can be distilled from the Atlanta case study. DRCOG should create a working committee similar to that of the TransFormation Alliance’s Equity and Poverty Committee. Tracking regional work around poverty and equity is not only important as a general best practice, but this will also broaden and strengthen relationships and partnerships with local jurisdictions, nonprofits, and community-based organizations. Denver’s planners and policymakers need to leverage the Regional Equity Atlas to develop Equitable Target Areas for prioritizing equitable projects. The current DRCOG and Mile High Connects (MHC) Regional Equity Atlas is already a useful public resource, so let’s put it to better use. DRCOG needs to develop a funding program more comparable to the LCI. DRCOG’s current Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) funds studies on land use and housing infrastructure issues around transit and activity centers. Additional designated funding for infrastructure improvements in these TIP areas would provide significant benefit. Lastly, as Denver approaches securing a future Better Denver Bond Program, capital projects and investments should have an explicit emphasis on FLMC strategies, policies and transit-supportive infrastructure. Atlanta has by no means “fixed” the problem of connecting people through transit. However, they have made some positive strides from which planning professionals and decision-makers in Denver can learn.

Recent articles

HEALTH:
HEALTH FIRST COLORADO (MEDICAID)

To maintain health and well-being, people of all ages need access to quality health care that improves outcomes and reduces costs for the community. Health First Colorado, the state's Medicaid program, is public health insurance for low-income Coloradans who qualify. The program is funded jointly by a federal-state partnership and is administered by the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy & Financing.

Benefits of the program include behavioral health, dental services, emergency care, family planning services, hospitalization, laboratory services, maternity care, newborn care, outpatient care, prescription drugs, preventive and wellness services, primary care and rehabilitative services.

In tandem with the Affordable Care Act, Colorado expanded Medicaid eligibility in 2013 - providing hundreds of thousands of adults with incomes less than 133% FPL with health insurance for the first time increasing the health and economic well-being of these Coloradans. Most of the money for newly eligible Medicaid clients has been covered by the federal government, which will gradually decrease its contribution to 90% by 2020.

Other populations eligible for Medicaid include children, who qualify with income up to 142% FPL, pregnant women with household income under 195% FPL, and adults with dependent children with household income under 68% FPL.

Some analyses indicate that Colorado's investment in Medicaid will pay off in the long run by reducing spending on programs for the uninsured.

FOOD SECURITY:
SUPPLEMENTAL NUTRITION ASSISTANCE PROGRAM (SNAP)

Hunger, though often invisible, affects everyone. It impacts people's physical, mental and emotional health and can be a culprit of obesity, depression, acute and chronic illnesses and other preventable medical conditions. Hunger also hinders education and productivity, not only stunting a child's overall well-being and academic achievement, but consuming an adult's ability to be a focused, industrious member of society. Even those who have never worried about having enough food experience the ripple effects of hunger, which seeps into our communities and erodes our state's economy.

Community resources like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps, exist to ensure that families and individuals can purchase groceries, with the average benefit being about $1.40 per meal, per person.

Funding for SNAP comes from the USDA, but the administrative costs are split between local, state, and federal governments. Yet, the lack of investment in a strong, effective SNAP program impedes Colorado's progress in becoming the healthiest state in the nation and providing a better, brighter future for all. Indeed, Colorado ranks 44th in the nation for access to SNAP and lost out on more than $261 million in grocery sales due to a large access gap in SNAP enrollment.

See the Food Assistance (SNAP) Benefit Calculator to get an estimate of your eligibility for food benefits.

FOOD SECURITY:
SPECIAL SUPPLEMENTAL NUTRITION PROGRAM FOR WOMEN, INFANTS AND CHILDREN (WIC)

Every child deserves the nutritional resources needed to get a healthy start on life both inside and outside the mother's womb. In particular, good nutrition and health care is critical for establishing a strong foundation that could affect a child's future physical and mental health, academic achievement and economic productivity. Likewise, the inability to access good nutrition and health care endangers the very integrity of that foundation.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) provides federal grants to states for supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition information for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding postpartum women and to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk.

Research has shown that WIC has played an important role in improving birth outcomes and containing health care costs, resulting in longer pregnancies, fewer infant deaths, a greater likelihood of receiving prenatal care, improved infant-feeding practices, and immunization rates

Financial Security:
Colorado Works

In building a foundation for self-sufficiency, some Colorado families need some extra tools to ensure they can weather challenging financial circumstances and obtain basic resources to help them and their communities reach their potential.

Colorado Works is Colorado's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and provides public assistance to families in need. The Colorado Works program is designed to assist participants in becoming self-sufficient by strengthening the economic and social stability of families. The program provides monthly cash assistance and support services to eligible Colorado families.

The program is primarily funded by a federal block grant to the state. Counties also contribute about 20% of the cost.

EARLY LEARNING:
COLORADO CHILD CARE ASSISTANCE PROGRAM (CCCAP)

Child care is a must for working families. Along with ensuring that parents can work or obtain job skills training to improve their families' economic security, studies show that quality child care improves children's academic performance, career development and health outcomes.

Yet despite these proven benefits, low-income families often struggle with the cost of child care. Colorado ranks among the top 10 most expensive states in the country for center-based child care. For families with an infant, full-time enrollment at a child care center cost an average of $15,140 a year-or about three-quarters of the total income of a family of three living at the Federal Poverty Level (FPL).

The Colorado Child Care Assistance Program (CCCAP) provides child care assistance to parents who are working, searching for employment or participating in training, and parents who are enrolled in the Colorado Works Program and need child care services to support their efforts toward self-sufficiency. Most of the money for CCCAP comes from the federal Child Care and Development Fund. Each county can set their own income eligibility limit as long as it is at or above 165% of the federal poverty level and does not exceed 85% of area median income.

Unfortunately, while the need is growing, only an estimated one-quarter of all eligible children in the state are served by CCCAP. Low reimbursement rates have also resulted in fewer providers willing to accept CCCAP subsidies.