Flawed transit governance proposal unfair to MARTA counties and Atlanta region

By Maria Saporta

How disappointing.

After months and months of study, the Transit Governance Task Force has come up with recommendations that are unacceptable — especially for residents in Fulton and DeKalb counties who have been investing in MARTA for the past four decades.

One of the most insulting elements of the proposed legislation could be described as blackmail.

To free MARTA from the state-imposed restriction that 50 percent of its sales tax revenues be spent on capital and 50 percent be spent on operations, MARTA basically would have to turn over most of its authorities to the newly-created Transit Governance Council. For the record, no other transit agency in the nation is saddled with such an unworkable rule.

MARTA represents a $6 billion investment in our region. Why should MARTA turn over its Constitutional powers to a state-controlled entity and give up its designation as the transit authority that can receive federal funding in the region.

According to folks close to MARTA, relaxing the 50/50 rule would give MARTA flexibility over how it spends its sales tax revenue (and it is expected that currently would be worth about $20 million a year for the transit agency).

It is inconceivable that MARTA could or should give up most of its powers and its $6 billion investment in return for getting flexibility in how it can spend the MARTA sales tax collected in the City of Atlanta, and Fulton and DeKalb counties.

Fortunately, several people who have been integral to the transit governance discussions have said freeing MARTA of the 50/50 rule should be “decoupled” from any transit governance legislation. They believe that should pass no matter what.

But the problems with the draft legislation don’t stop there.

First of all, in the name of not starting another transportation agency, the draft bill sets up another bureaucracy.

The 35-member Transit Governance Council (which would have its own director) would be an arm of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority.

GRTA would go from having all its 15 members appointed by the governor to having nine appointed by the governor, three appointed by the lieutenant governor and three appointed by the Speaker of the House.

That means that all of 15 of GRTA’s board members would continue being appointed by leaders of state that provides virtually no funding for transit operations in metro Atlanta or anywhere else in the state.

The basic issue is fairness. There should be a “pay to play” understanding. The only entities that should be calling the shots on transit should be the ones paying for it.

Interestingly enough, the proposed Transit Governance Council is strikingly similar to the Atlanta Regional Commission’s proposal for transit governance — but with several deal-breaking exceptions.

First, ARC’s Regional Transit Committee called for proportional voting. Each vote would be weighed by population and investment in transit. After all, that’s only fair.

The state draft legislation calls for the commission chairs for 13 counties as well as one mayor from each county would serve on the council. The mayor of Atlanta also would have a seat at the table. (For the record, most of the remaining members would be appointed by state officials).

That means that Fulton County (with a population of 1.01 million) and DeKalb County (with a population of 740,000) would have the same representation as Douglas County (with a population of 92,174). Now is that fair?

Overlay that with Fulton and DeKalb having contributed a penny sales tax for MARTA for the past 40 years while a Douglas County has yet to make a significant investment in transit, and it’s even more unfair.

The draft legislation also would call for both the Transit Governance Council and the state-controlled GRTA to hire a transit director. That not only sounds unworkable, but also unfair. Why should the state have the power to name a transit director when it puts no money in transit.

Also, GRTA could veto anything passed by the Transit Governance Council with a two-thirds vote (basically all the governor’s appointees). Again, is that fair?

There are many other problem areas in the draft legislation. It could diminish ARC’s regional planning role. It does not capitalize on the transit expertise that exists at MARTA (which carries more than 90 percent of all transit riders in metro Atlanta).

There appears to be no guarantee that the transit director would be an experienced professional leaving open the possibility of that position being filled by a political appointee. (Think about what’s happened to the Georgia Department of Transportation over the last several years).

So here we are, six months away from asking voters to pass another penny sales tax for transportation in the region, and we have a proposed transit governance bill that is so flawed that several people said it should die a natural death.

Maybe it still can be salvaged, but it would need to be overhauled.

First of all, MARTA should be given total flexibility on how its spends its own money (and that freedom should not be tied to transit governance).

The Transit Governing Council should have proportional voting based on population and transit investment. That way, if the state wants to call some of the shots, it would need to start paying its fair share for transit.

If the Council were to be empowered, then there would be no need for GRTA. The residual functions that it would have could easily be given to GDOT, ARC and the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.

Also, a transit governance bill could give MARTA the ability to contract with other counties in the region to build out rail projects. It already can contract with counties to provide bus service.

The bottom line is that this proposed legislation should not pass in its current flawed state. The metro area would be better off with no regional transit entity than one that could be viewed as a state takeover of our urban transit systems.

We shouldn’t move forward unless we can do it right — once and for all.

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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