Metro leaders voice concern over the state controlling a regional Atlanta transit agency

By Maria Saporta

Elected leaders in the Atlanta region are becoming increasingly concerned in the direction of a Regional Transit Governance Task Force established by Gov. Nathan Deal.

“There’s no question that the state is still struggling with wanting to control everything,” said Mike Bodker, mayor of Johns Creek, adding that “you have every right to control what you pay for.”

One of the real areas of tension on transit governance focuses on whether representation on the umbrella transit agency will reflect the entities that contribute financially to public transportation operations in metro Atlanta.

The State of Georgia barely invests in transit. It does not provide annual operating support to the largest transit system in the state — MARTA, or two other county systems in Gwinnett and Cobb. It does oversee the XPress bus operations through the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA), but a large portion of that service has been paid for through federal “new start” dollars.

Tad Leithead, chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission — who was elected to another two-year term on Wednesday — said that the word is that the Task Force was likely to propose “repurposing GRTA” with at least a majority of the members being appointed by the governor. Currently, all of GRTA’s 15 board members are appointed by the governor.

The Atlanta Regional Commission has taken the position that a majority of those appointed to a new umbrella transit agency should be local elected officials that represent areas that contribute to transit operations.

If the Task Force does propose repurposing GRTA and keep it under state control, “that would put us in a position of having to oppose a regional transit governance bill,” Leithead said.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who serves on the Transit Governance Task Force, took it a step further.

“I believe GRTA is the wrong entity,” said Reed, during the ARC executive committee meeting. “We ought to be trying to shift course and create a new entity where every one can be at the table. No governor that I have every met is going to give up power on board appointments.”

Bodker agreed, saying that GRTA has a statewide mandate, and metro Atlanta needs an umbrella agency with a regional mandate.

Regional leaders were aware of the sensitivities that could emerge between the state and metro Atlanta.

“It’s an uphill climb,” Leithead said. “If the governor is driving a state agency that controls regional transit, it is going to put us in a real bind.”

Bodker, however, said that the elected leaders in metro Atlanta should not underestimate their influence. Instead of it being just ARC’s position, Bodker said it reflects the sentiments of the 10 county commissions as well as the mayors in those counties.

“The voice of the collective is a very powerful voice,” Bodker said.

Decatur Mayor Bill Floyd said the issue of transit governance could impact the vote on the regional transportation sales tax that is supposed to go before voters on July 31, 2012. If voters are going to support more than $3 billion for transit projects, they will want to know who will be in charge and that the Atlanta region will have a prevailing voice.

Reed also suggested that it might make sense to reach out to Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston on possibly having some say-so on who would be on the transit governance board.

Leithead also said that it was important that his opinion should not be “construed” as a criticism of GRTA and the governor. It’s just that “I think they are the wrong agency,” he said.

The argument for “repurposing” an existing entity is that metro Atlanta and Georgia does not need yet another transportation entity. In addition to ARC, GRTA and MARTA, there is the Georgia Department of Transportation, the State Road and Tollway Authority, the Gwinnett County Transit system and the Cobb County Transit system.

To that, Mayor Reed said: “Let’s eliminate another entity. We are in new territory here. We are trying to make this new step fit into an old model. That’s why I think the best path is for a new entity.”

The Transit Governance Task Force is expected to draft proposed legislation in time for the beginning of the 2012 session of the General Assembly.

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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