Dysfunction junction: State leaders unable to help MARTA, transportation funding

There’s so much blame to go around.

The political stalemate between Gov. Sonny Perdue, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker Glenn Richardson means the Atlanta region is in a standstill when it comes to new transportation funding.

The implications are enormous.

MARTA will have to drastically reduce service, maybe even shutting down its trains one day a week.

Metro Atlanta will continue to be stuck in gridlock — further diminishing our competitive edge when it comes to economic development.

It will be years, if these current political conditions persist, before we will have any money to invest in transit and sound transportation projects.

In the meantime, our top competitors are busy building and expanding all modes of transit — everything from commuter rail, light rail and high speed rail.

And why are we falling so far behind? Because our top elected officials can’t rise above their own petty politics and their own personal power plays.

How embarrassing.

The only way that I see them redeem themselves would be for Perdue to call a special legislative session with the sole purpose of finding solutions for transportation funding and MARTA.

And the governor would need to exert leadership to get a workable consensus between Richardson and Cagle rather than sit on the sidelines.

Of course, for that to happen, Perdue, Cagle and Richardson would have to put the interests of the state above their own self interests. But with this crowd, that could be expecting way too much.

Why start now? After all, they’ve had seven years and they’ve done virtually nothing when it comes to one of the most pressing problems in our state.

It’s a sad twist because all signs leading up to the 2009 legislative session were promising.

The Get Georgia Moving Coalition, which represents 100 different organizations across the state, worked tirelessly to keep transportation funding front and center.

Starting last summer, Gov. Perdue came out in support of commuter rail from Atlanta to Griffin (and then he failed to put any money for the train in his budget).
The governor also commissioned a comprehensive study — IT3 — “Investing in Tomorrow’s Transportation Today” — (isn’t that ironic?).

The Transit Planning Board had built a suburban-urban consensus around a metro transit network that would serve the entire region. It even had the makings of establishing a new regional transit authority that would have included MARTA and any of the other counties willing to contribute to it financially.

And Perdue, Cagle and Richardson all promised to address metro Atlanta’s and Georgia’s transportation problems early in the session.

But, out of the gate, Gov. Perdue threw everything off track.

First of all, he totally ignored all the recommendations in the IT3 plan.

And out of the blue, he proposed a new transportation governance structure without any thoughtful study. To make matters worse, he said he would not support any new transportation funding before getting his governance bill approved.

That’s when the political merry-go-round began. Those who follow the legislature every year have told me it’s the worst they’ve ever seen.

Richardson was determined to do whatever was necessary to make Cagle look bad and hurt his gubernatorial chances. And Cagle showed little political prowess to put together a political coaliton to get new transportation funding passed.

It makes me long for the days when our top state politicians would set aside their personal political games to do what was in the best interest of the state.

Remember House Speaker Tom Murphy? He realized how important metro Atlanta was for the state’s economy, and he would respond in kind, think Georgia World Congress Center.

In talking to several business and regional leaders this weekend, it seems as though everyone is in shock that our political system crumbled in the closing minutes of the 2009 session.

Only now are they beginning to tabulate all the economic consequences of doing nothing.

“They are playing politics with the future of the state’s economy,” says Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber. “There was a real abandonment to fix one of the most fundamental problems in our state. I would compare it to not allowing statewide banking 25 years ago, which made Charlotte the banking center it is today.”

Meanwhile, Williams said he’s sure our top competitors — from Charlotte to Tampa to Dallas — are celebrating by our political ineptness.

The first major casualty in all of this likely will be MARTA, which was only asking the legislature for flexibility in how it spends the money it already has.

Some House legislators were even so arrogant as to suggest they would only give MARTA flexibility if the state got control of the transit agency.

They proposed reducing MARTA’s board from 18 to seven members, with four of those board members being state officials and only one representative from each of the three local governments that have been supporting the agency for nearly 40 years. This is from a state that gives virtually no money to MARTA.

The only way to fix the catastrophe ahead of us would be to have a special session to pass a rational MARTA bill giving it funding flexibility and to reach a consensus allowing voters in regions across the state to approve a one-cent sales tax on transportation.

Short of that, the only real winner in this debacle will be the Democratic Party of Georgia.

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.

7 replies
  1. Richard E. Hodges says:

    This is a great column, not surprising, identifying the failure of Georgia’s political leadership to deal responsibly with monumental transportation problems and challenges facing our state. This inability to get together due to ideology and personal politcal ambitions is not only appalling, but it’s tragic and potentially disastrous for the state’s future. It’s time, or past time, for the electorate in this state to pay attention to the caliber and vision of those they entrust to provide leadership in state government. This column by Maria Saporta should be circulated throughout the state so that “thinking” voters can react appropriately. The opinion that the governor should call for a special session to address this vital matter is a first-rate suggestion , but probably will not happen since his leadership on transportation has been largely throughout this term in office. Meantime, metro Atlanta, the powerhouse of Georgia’s growth and progress historically, must continue to suffer at the hands of irresponsible politicians. Meantime, this otherwise wonderful state continues on a course to take a back seat to others in the South and throughtout the nation. How sad !Report

  2. Charles says:

    We know that a one day closer of the transit would only deepen the problems of marta. while we allknow a one day closer of the roads would alleviate many troubles we are facing…a one day moratorium of our highways!Report

  3. Doug Monroe says:

    Maria, I hate to laugh. But these guys are such morons that laughter is the only response. It’s 2009. Nothing has changed in over a decade. They don’t care about Marta because they can’t even conceive of a world that’s any different from the 1950s. They think they can zoom around alone in their cars for the rest of eternity. It’s not so. As they’ll soon find out. Keep up the good work, Sister!Report

  4. Carmen A. Harris says:

    This is funny. I moved to the Atlanta area two years ago and was surprised about how few people ride Marta and how it doesn’t go far into the suburbs. Coming the from DC area, which already completed a study for light rail (aka purple line) and is preparing to build it – as well as the many options to connect Montgomery County, MD with Fairfax County, Va to cut down on the HOMICIDAL traffic. Georgia is STUCK on the politics of fear. Get over yourself. Encourage the business community and citizens to ride public transport and move their offices to be closer to Marta. Extend Marta so many won’t drive and will ride – but it has to be easy to ride. Create more parking spaces at or near Marta stations. Do something. But don’t let the politics of fear discourage transportation funding – particulary for Marta.Report


    What? I ride MARTA. This outcome is sucky. I say we shut down all roads and highways statewide until they figure this thing out.Report


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