Consultant onboard, recommendations en route for state role in transit

By Maggie Lee

With a Tuesday vote, the members of a state House panel decided to commission a study on the state’s mass transit needs, and how to fund and manage the delivery of that transit.

Things like buses and subways haven’t been a budget priority for the state — the folks under the Gold Dome budgeted about $14.5 million on transit in FY 2015, mostly for Xpress bus service.

Compared to that, a nearly $1 million study represents a sizable state commitment to looking at taking a bigger role in transit. Georgia has long been satisfied to leave transit to the management and fundraising powers of cities, counties and the federal government.

The study doesn’t mean the state will change transit governance or spend any money on transit. But it does mean some serious consideration for the topic under the Gold Dome.

Deloitte, the company that won the contract, is set to identify some early observations or opportunities as early as this year, or “low-hanging fruit,” as Chris Tomlinson put it. He’s executive director of the State Road and Tollway Authority as well as of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority.

Then it’ll be up to the House Commission on Transit Governance and Funding to decide if they want to recommend anything from Deloitte’s early observations to the state Legislature when it starts its session in January.

MARTA train

MARTA is Georgia’s biggest transit agency, but most counties do have some transit, even if it’s a modest rural bus service. Credit/file: Kelly Jordan

Then in 2018, the process will repeat: Deloitte will keep up its study, report back to the blue-ribbon panel of state lawmakers, transit officials, local elected leaders and others. Then the panel can decide what ideas to take to state lawmakers in 2019.

No transit agency in the U.S. pays for itself via fares. All of them get a mix of other money that ultimately comes from the public, but via different paths: there’s federal money, state money, city money, local sales taxes. In some states, transit agencies even tap lottery funds, gas taxes or fees on property transfers.

Compared to some other state capitols, Georgia’s Gold Dome regularly disperses fairly little cash for transit.

Across the country, the average state spend on transit is $270 million per year, according to data presented by the Atlanta Regional Commission, pulled from the federal National Transit Database.

There’s a lot of variation, however. New York, California, Illinois and New Jersey are big spenders. With a huge transit-dependent metro, the state of New York spends $4.3 billion annually on transit. Car-dependent New Mexico spends less than $4,000 per year on transit.

MARTA gets its cash from sales taxes in the area it serves, federal grants, fares, and other relatively small sources like advertising and use of its real estate. Though MARTA is by far the biggest Georgia transit agency, most counties do have transit, even if it’s just modest rural on-call bus services.

When the commission began hearings this year, state House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, signaled openness to “reasonable” state funding, subject to appropriate controls, in the interest of moving more people and freight through the state.

Doug Hooker, executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission said on Tuesday he thinks that transit is playing an increasing role in businesses’ calculations about where they want to locate their facilities.

“When we are asked by county economic development authorities or chambers of commerce to help them with presentations, or provide answers to businesses that are looking to settle here or expand here, very frequently the question is: Where is transit, how easily is it accessible … what’s the cost of transit, what’s the general support for transit?” said Hooker.

Dawsonville Republican state Rep. Kevin Tanner chairs the House Transportation Committee, as well as the commission. That makes him a key gatekeeper on transportation policy.

“I know I’m open, and I think this commission is open, to listening to various ideas,” he told the group.

And the group consequently heard a range of ideas over roughly three hours of hearings.

One is public-private partnerships, in which private companies take on some part of building or managing a public service. Another is possibly tapping the state’s community improvement district law, which allows geographic areas to vote themselves extra property taxes which they control.

And another would be to reprise what happened a few years ago — that’s when Republican Gov. Nathan Deal signed a landmark $75 million bond for transit in the fiscal year 2015 state budget. It’s a big spend by Georgia standards and Deal called it the first time the state has made that kind of significant investment in transit systems across the state.

After lawmakers approved the bond, transit agencies statewide applied for funds. MARTA won some, as did other agencies.

If the state went with bond funding, they could reprise that process of awarding bond money through competitive applications. Or they could even agree to bond specific projects.

It’s common enough for the state Legislature to work up slowly to considering major changes via committee hearings, data-gathering, and submitting recommendations to the full Legislature.

But even the most deeply researched plans and recommendations don’t always get consideration, much less passage, at the state Legislature. And the dynamics under the Gold Dome will be a bit different in the coming years.

For one, 2018 is an election year for every office under the Gold Dome. Folks running for reelection — or election to a higher office — might be looking to build records they can campaign on. That is to say, it might be an awkward year for rural lawmakers to support any funding that could be possibly interpreted as favoring metro Atlanta.

And another election year wrinkle: there will be pressure to close the 40-day session as soon as possible. Incumbents can’t raise campaign money during a session that begins in January but that has a yet-unscheduled ending date. There will be pressure to gavel out as soon as possible to get to work on raising funds.

And 2018 is Deal’s last in office. Come 2019, there will be a new governor.

 

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