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.”

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11 comments
ScottNAtlanta
ScottNAtlanta

@burroughston Brock

I can tell you with 100% confidence that wont happen because, 1. they would never get away with doing it due to public scrutiny, and 2. there has never been any hesitation for punishing MARTA to extreme measures for past and assumed past wrong doing from our legislators, and surely they would act in such a case.  Calling it a jobs program isn't very constructive

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

But is regional governance of rail and bus transit really all that sound of an idea, especially in a region with so many wildly divergent and wildly diverse and differing political interests?

 

I pose this question because the transportation needs of exurban counties like a Cherokee, a Paulding or a Hall where only commuter rail and bus service and expanded roads may be of greater interests to commuters, or suburban counties in a rapidly-urbanizing transition like Gwinnett and Cobb where commuter rail and bus service, limited expansion of roads and limited local rail and bus service are needed are dramatically different from established urban counties like Fulton and DeKalb where road expansion is an impossibility and heavier rail and bus service are required due to the higher density of development.

 

Instead of awkwardly trying to fit a "one-size-fits-all" solution to the region's transportation challenges, why not just concentrate on improving overall transit service throughout the region by exanding transit service one rail line at a time by financing each rail expansion separately through the use of public-private partnerships (the same kind of public-private partnership that the state was trying to enter into on the now effectively defunct I-75/I-575 Northwest HOT Lane Project) and bonds paid back with user fees in the same way that toll roads are financed? 

writes_of_weigh
writes_of_weigh

Why not Amtrak as an alternative to Marta, in operating various(save commuter subway services) rail- centric services in the region? Unfortunately....but interestingly(someone has mentioned "Balkanization" at Marta) the same dysfunction which pervades Amtrak and which has left not only the Southeast without viable inter-city rail passenger service, but too, the nation as a whole(hole?), seems to populate the Marta franchise, just on a more grand scale. It belies that despite there being a federal entity, since about 1964, which had as part of a later determined "mission" of providing inter-(multi-)modal transportation options for those who have funded such options, we have been disappointed, repeatedly. And we are left with all that expensive  "baggage", yet few choices.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

"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."

 

Maria, you are clearly being really nice, because that's a vast understatement.

 

 

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

Even though MARTA may eventually be lawfully permitted to contract with other counties to provide potential future rail service, specifically in Gwinnett and Cobb Counties, there will be much animated very-entrenched political resistance to having MARTA rail in those counties in any way, shape or form.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

Though there is a consensus that perhaps a much more multimodal approach needs to be taken to solving transportation and mobility issues, using present-day MARTA heavy rail or even potential light rail as an approach to help those issues remains a political lightning rod in those politicially-powerful suburban counties, often with the most anti-rail, anti-transit and even anti-transportation forces screaming the loudest and guiding and dominating the transportation conversation, especially in traditionally ultraconservative exurban-suburban and now rapidly-urbanizing Cobb County.

 

 

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

"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."

 

That is a very good idea, Maria, but the problem is that rail transit, especially MARTA, is heavily demogogued in suburban powerhouses, Gwinnett and, especially, Cobb County.

 

As traffic continues to worsen dramatically and commutes continue to lengthen significantly in those politicially-crucial suburban counties, a definite consensus is starting to build that minimal roadbuilding efforts alone (which, believe-it-or-not, there has also been a definite lack of over the last couple of decades) will not help Metro Atlanta out of its increasingly gargantuan traffic and mobility problems.

Dick Hodges
Dick Hodges

This is an outstanding analysis of a situation that is almost unbelieveable at this period of crisis in     Georgia's most important metropolitan area--the home of much of the prorgress of this state.But it's regrettably a pattern that has prevailed in Georgia regarding transportation challenges and opportunities for far too many years. The result of this balkanization and lack of political courage and vision could be tragic for the future of metro Atlanta...and the whole state. Maria, has usual, evaluates with perspective and ideas that need to be heeded.    

Burroughston Broch
Burroughston Broch

If the requirement that 50% of MARTA's sales tax revenues in Fulton and DeKalb were removed, we would soon see (1) a rash of raises, bonuses and new hires of friends and family, and (2) rapid deterioration of the infrastructure. This is because MARTA is a jobs program that just happens to provide transportation.