By Maria Saporta
Friday, December 31, 2010
When it comes to transportation, metro Atlanta is at a tipping point.
So believes Jim Durrett, who was elected as the new MARTA board chairman on Dec. 28, succeeding attorney Michael Tyler, who rotated off the board.
Durrett also understands that the role MARTA will play in the transportation debate will be critical as the metro area and the state struggle to decide on what new governance structure for transit will best serve the needs of the region and what kind of funding will be available to pay for it.
A myriad of commissions, committees and roundtables have been formed — several with overlapping missions — to answer those questions. And MARTA leaders are having to maneuver around local, regional and state politics to make sure transit will be part of metro Atlanta’s transportation solutions.
“Relationships are going to matter more than anything else because the situation is so complicated,” Durrett said in a lengthy interview about his new role. “We have to pay attention to every single variable. Unless we are working together, we run the risk of screwing up the formula for successful transportation delivery in metropolitan Atlanta.”
Durrett has been building relationships throughout his career.
Currently, Durrett is executive director of the Buckhead Community Improvement District, which works with local landowners on transportation fixes in one of Atlanta’s most important business centers.
Before that, Durrett was executive director of the Livable Communities Coalition, an outgrowth of the Quality Growth Task Force set up by the Metro Atlanta Chamber to make sure the metro area links transportation investments with smart growth developments.
Durrett also ran the Atlanta chapter of the Urban Land Institute. Before that, he worked at the Metro Atlanta Chamber in its public policy area, and also worked for the Georgia Conservancy.
Durrett brings something else to the table.
“I ride MARTA almost every day of the week — both buses and trains,” Durrett said. “Are there changes and improvements that need to be made? Absolutely. Does it deserve the poor reputation it seems to have in the local media? Absolutely not.”
It is that background that motivated Durrett to become MARTA’s chair a mere 14 months after joining the board. Because he has built relationships in business, civic and political circles, and had been integrally involved in transit policy in several of his jobs, Durrett felt he could help lead MARTA through this changing environment.
Consider the situation.
The day Durrett takes over as chairman, the MARTA board will shrink from 18 voting members to 11 voting members. Five of those 11 board members will be brand-new. The new board governance was mandated as part of House Bill 277, which will give the region an opportunity to vote on a one-cent sales tax for transportation in 2012.
But simultaneously, there are two separate efforts under way to determine what kind of regional transit agency should exist in metro Atlanta.
The state legislature set up the Transit Governance Study Commission chaired by Rep. Donna Sheldon. R-Dacula.
At the same time, the Atlanta Regional Commission has its own Regional Transit Committee, chaired by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, and currently is working on the exact same task. MARTA representatives serve on both of those bodies.
“MARTA needs to find its proper place in the new regional transit context, and the region needs to better understand the value that we can bring,” Durrett said.
MARTA’s 30-plus years of experience in building and operating both bus and rail transit systems can help the region come up with the most efficient way to serve the whole region instead of just the city of Atlanta, Fulton County and DeKalb County (the three jurisdictions that approved MARTA nearly 40 years ago).
“By being smart in how we integrate our systems, we can be more cost-effective in how we bring transit services to the entire region,” Durrett said.
Meanwhile, MARTA is still in a financial crunch. Durrett said the legislature will permanently remove a restriction that MARTA must spend 50 percent of its one-cent sales tax on capital and the rest on operations. HB 277 removed that restriction for three years.
Also, as it currently stands, HB 277 stipulates that the new sales tax cannot go toward supporting MARTA’s existing operations — a situation that has irritated taxpayers in the MARTA jurisdictions as well as transit advocates.
Durrett said the hope is that some of the “unintended consequences of HB 277” can be fixed before the 2012 vote.
One of Durrett’s goals will be to engage the business community to help “make the case for MARTA’s value.” Business leaders historically have been able to bring solid information to the discussion and influence public policy.
In contrast to local perception, Durrett said, “MARTA operates its system as efficiently as any of its peers in the country.”
Given the recent elections of a new governor and many new legislators, Durrett said MARTA has a “brand-new opportunity to establish relationships.” At the same time, he believes the legislature now has a better understanding of MARTA’s value in the region.
Still, much needs to be done to secure transit funding in the region and to design the best governance structure to unify all the transit agencies in metro Atlanta.
“We are at a tipping point in this region as to whether we are going to be able to prosper and grow in a healthy way,” Durrett said. “I believe it’s an extremely opportune moment. We can’t afford to squander it.”