Atlanta region standing strong on regional transit governance and changes to MARTA Act

By Maria Saporta

It should be so simple.

Establishing a regional transit governance structure and tweaking the MARTA Act to make the transit system more functional should be no brainers.

But when sound ideas are placed in the hands of some members of the General Assembly they somehow become distorted, convoluted and warped with political baggage.

Then when people and institutions object to proposed bills have been drafted with flawed thinking rather than common sense, those bills often just die on the vine and nothing gets done.

That’s where we are today with a proposed bill for regional transit governance and with proposed changes to the MARTA Act.

Instead of dissecting the shortcomings of each, I feel it would be more useful to just outline what needs to happen to help the region plan, implement and operate a state-of-the-art regional transit system.

Let’s start with transit governance.

The Atlanta Regional Commission’s Regional Transit Committee is a good starting point. In many ways, it is evolving into a true regional transit board.

Its voting members include the chairs of Cherokee, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale counties as well as the mayor of Atlanta and the mayor of Johns Creek. Other voting members include the chair of ARC, MARTA and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority.

Its non-voting members are even more inclusive with several state transportation leaders, other county commission chairs and MARTA’s CEO.

For more than a year, this broad-based group of regional leaders has put forth its own proposed transit governance bill — one that still has value today.

It’s based on three resounding principles.

1. Local control: since a regional penny sales tax would be collected in the 10-county metro Atlanta area, it makes sense for the region to be able to control its transit body.

2. Pay to play: the governmental entities that are paying for transit should be the ones at the table making decisions. Or vice versa, the entities that do not fund transit should not be calling the shots.

3. Proportional representation: the voting power of board members should be weighted by a jurisdiction’s population and financial contribution to the region’s transit system.

These are relatively simple concepts that promote fairness with regional oversight and accountability.

Here’s the good news. The Atlanta Regional Commission is as unified as it has ever been for such a regional governance proposal. At its last board meeting Feb. 22, it adopted a position paper restating its beliefs.

“I’m proud of the work that ARC has done,” said Burrell Ellis, DeKalb County’s CEO. “We have taken a strong stand on local control and proportionality so we can have sound governance for a transit system in the region by whatever name it has.”

Ellis went on to say: “We are being serious and proactive, and we are sticking to our guns because they are good principles on which to build. It’s significant that the people who are going to be called on to support the system have a say in it and be sure their constituents are fairly represented.”

Tad Leithead, chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission, said his body was “disappointed” that the proposed governance bill that was introduced last week “did not conform to the principles that we had established over time.”

Specifically, that bill would give GRTA, whose members would all be appointed by state leaders, veto power over any decision made by the transit governance board.

“It has the effect of limiting the local control aspect,” Leithead said. “At the end of the day, (decisions by the transit board) would need approval by a state body.”

Next — revisions to the MARTA Act.

The Atlanta Regional Commission proposed two revisions:

First, remove once and for all the transit agency’s restriction that 50 percent of its sales tax revenues collected in Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb be spent on capital improvements and 50 percent on operating. MARTA should have the flexibility on how it spends its revenues.

Second, permit MARTA to contract with counties outside Fulton and DeKalb to provide rail transit services. When they are ready to develop rail transit, counties could then contract with the one transit agency in the region that has experience in building and operating rail systems. Currently MARTA does have the right to contract with other counties to provide services.

Unfortunately, Rep. Mike Jacobs, who is chair of the MARTA Oversight Committee, added a bunch of unnecessary provisions and restrictions, infused with politics, that would make it much more cumbersome for MARTA and the region.

“It’s all divisive and unnecessary,” Fulton County Chair John Eaves said about Jacob’s proposed changes to the MARTA Act. “I’m frustrated, and I’m pissed off. MARTA is just underappreciated and undervalued in this region.”

So where do we stand?

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has not given up total hope that a rational regional transit governance bill could emerge out of the legislature this year.

“There is real movement and discussion on what is a fair transit governance bill,” Reed said. “There’s a genuine desire to get a regional transit governance bill. I view this as a process.”

Again, the best part of this exercise is that regional leaders are sticking together — providing a formidable force to actually creating a governance structure that could best plan, implement and operate regional transit.

And if the legislature does not act this year, the ARC’s Regional Transit Committee will continue being the voice for transit in the region.

As DeKalb’s Ellis said: “The beauty you are seeing come out of ARC as a decision-making body is that we are making decisions that are based on unanimity.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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