By Lyle Harris
No more flying pigs?
Georgia’s Legislature has suffered a failure to launch on the issue of public transportation for years, but that may finally be changing. A legislative study committee report released last month recommends that the state provide operating funds to local transit agencies all across Georgia – including MARTA.
Yes, it’s only a study committee and waaay to early to start celebrating. But this promising and long overdue development has implications that are too important for even the most cynical among us (me) to dismiss. While flying pigs exist only in fantasy, a serious discussion about dedicated transit funding in Georgia is already taking flight.
The seven-member, Senate Study Committee on Regional Transit Solutions was headed by Sen. Steve Gooch (R-Dahlonega). Gooch also serves on the Transportation Committee and MARTOC, the MARTA Oversight Committee.
With a professional background in development and commercial real estate, Gooch seems to be among a small but growing minority of elected officials finally connecting the immutable dots between land use and transportation. Rounding out the study committee were pro-transit leaders such as Sen. Brandon Beach (R-Alpharetta) Sen. Valencia Seay of Riverdale and Sen. Nan Orrock of Atlanta.
The 14-page final report is mercifully short and sweet. Still, you’ll be forgiven for not reading the whole document (spoiler alert!); the money shot shows up on page 10 with this eloquent epiphany in the form of a legislative recommendation:
“…it is the position of the Committee, that the State of Georgia, create in 2017, a comprehensive, far-reaching, “Path Forward for Transit,” with a set-aside amount of state funding for the purpose of developing an all-inclusive solution in the area of transit governance and funding that can be fully embraced by policymakers and the public and enacted into law by 2018.”
That phrase – A Path Forward for Transit – bears repeating. It should also become a rallying cry for everyone who understands that alternative transportation modes are crucial to the economic health and vitality of Georgia, just like roads and bridges are. Having legislation in place by 2018 is certainly an ambitious, but achievable goal.
Even if that happens, of course, it’s unlikely any “set aside” for transit will ever match the $2 billion budget of the Georgia Department of Transportation, at least not in our lifetime. But transit deserves some level of state funding commensurate with the benefits it provides.
While MARTA is Georgia’s largest and oldest transit agency, the study committee points out that there are more than 120 smaller transit providers across the state providing more than 150 million passenger trips each year. In addition to CobbLinc, Gwinnett County Transit and the Xpress buses operated by the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority in metro Atlanta, there are also dozens of transit systems in cities and small towns providing lifeline transportation for customers going to school, to work and to medical visits often on a shoestring. All in all, these agencies contribute about $4.3 billion to Georgia’s economy.
The committee report also addressed the growing trend of Fortune 1000 companies that are co-locating their headquarters and workplaces close to transit hubs. Why? Because Millenials. Major companies such as Mercedes-Benz and State Farm that have publicly embraced transit to attract younger workers, are making bottom-line business decisions that state lawmakers can no longer easily ignore.
Among those testifying before the study committee was Nick Juliano, southeast public affairs manager for Uber, the ride-hailing service. Juliano is a pro-transit stalwart and his company has been working with MARTA to provide “first-mile, last-mile” connectivity for travelers who live too far from a bus stop or train station to have convenient trip to their destinations. Despite some doomsayers, it’s doubtful Uber, Lyft and self-driving cars will kill public transportation; but they could complement it.
The committee’s conclusions notwithstanding, there are some very BIG questions that remain to be answered once the 2017 General Assembly gets underway next week. Those include:
- Should there be a singular entity running or managing transit services statewide? If so, would that be GRTA, GDOT or some other agency to be named later?
- Where do the funds “set aside” for transit come from exactly? Pro-transit Atlanta notwithstanding, new taxes are usually non-starter with Georgia voters. A re-allocation of existing taxes transportation taxes or local transportation levies seem more politically. The study committee report makes clear that local buy-in from impacted voters is a must.
- Decisions about transit governance and funding are indivisible and must be sustainable. As Georgia’s population continues to grow and diversify, any state investments in transit infrastructure will take years – decades really – to build, operate and maintain. Given the time frames and billions of dollars that will be in play, the report notes that Georgia must “get it right.”
The study committee also recommends bringing in third-party experts to help guide the process. That makes sense and could add a much-needed level of objectivity and credibility to decision-making that could otherwise become overwhelmed, and undercut, by politics. Moreover, independent analysis could help to identify economic opportunities to create or attract transit manufacturing to Georgia.
If this is Georgia’s long-awaited “path forward for transit,” then let’s get moving.