First column in a series.
By Maria Saporta
Nearly 20 years ago, key business and government leaders heralded the creation of a new transportation authority that would tackle metro Atlanta’s traffic problems by expanding transit.
And so the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority – GRTA – was born.
At the time, there was one naysayer – the late Harry West, the longtime executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission.
“Why create yet another agency?” West asked. “Why don’t we just fix the ones we have.”
That question is even more relevant today with the inevitable creation of yet another transportation agency – the ATL (Atlanta Transit Link) – which passed the General Assembly on the last day of the 2018 session.
It will join the already crowded transportation space of GRTA, the State Road and Tollway Authority (SRTA), the Atlanta Regional Commission, MARTA, the Georgia Department of Transportation as well as Cobb County Transit and Gwinnett County Transit.
Almost everyone – from those in the transportation arena, the state’s political leadership and the business community – has applauded the passage of the ATL as a pathway to expand and improve our region’s transit network.
But to me it feels as though we just are rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
We are creating yet one more bureaucracy that will carry its own administrative costs while not developing the necessary funding stream to build the comprehensive regional transit system we need.
And the ATL will only confuse the decision-making power of every entity that already exists. With more than half a dozen agencies trying to figure out the region’s transit plans and operations, we are destined to end up with power struggles galore with little likelihood of real progress to build out transit in metro Atlanta.
During the session, there was talk of the ATL becoming part of a reconfigured GRTA, which would have made much more sense.
But, according to people close to the situation, that didn’t happen because Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle (who is running for governor) and Gov. Nathan Deal did not want to give up any of their power under a new governance structure.
All of GRTA’s board members are appointed by the governor, a power that helped give former Gov. Roy Barnes the reputation of King Roy. Barnes had great plans for GRTA in his second term as governor, but that all came to naught when he lost re-election. His successor, Gov. Sonny Perdue, did not have similar ambitions for GRTA, and the agency has yet to become much more than a glorified regional bus service.
To his credit, Gov. Deal has sought to consolidate some of the transit agencies (GRTA and SRTA now share the same executive director – Chris Tomlinson – and that combination actually could be a mechanism for new transit investment through its toll revenues.
The state also has boasted about a new-found cooperation between all these metro agencies and the Georgia Department of Transportation. Cooperation is great, but GDOT could do so much more. In many states, transportation departments are multi-dimensional and include transit and alternative transportation modes in addition to roads and bridges.
Of course, if we really want to expand transit in this region, we would make structural changes – such as pass a Constitutional Amendment that would allow the state gas tax to go to allmodes of transportation. But I’m dreaming again.
Back to reality, promoters of the new ATL have said it will create a pathway to transit for Gwinnett and Cobb (if people can figure out how the convoluted governance structure of district representation will work) as well as other jurisdictions in its 13-county service area.
But they also add that they don’t expect mass transit to be approved in any of the outlying counties beyond the five-county region (Fulton, DeKalb, Clayton, Gwinnett and Cobb) any time soon.
When MARTA was first proposed, it was envisioned to be the regional transit agency for those five counties. Clayton, which joined MARTA as a full partner in 2014 by passing a penny sales tax, is a wonderful example of how MARTA can still fulfill that vision
In fact, some people are predicting that Gwinnett might push a referendum for this November so it could just work directly with MARTA rather than with the new ATL.
It does seem as though Gwinnett is be the next county to get serious about expanding its transit system – a welcome development.
But again, did we really need another transit agency to make that happen.
When I asked Chris Riley, Gov. Deal’s chief of staff, about whether we needed yet another transportation agency, he answered: “Some could look at it that way.”
Then Riley quickly added: “We were involved in the negotiations all the way to the end of the bill. We will start reviewing bills next week.”
A strong indication of Gov. Deal’s support for the ATL approach is that he announced that his 2019 budget sets aside $100 million bond money for transit. That is in addition to $75 million that he set aside last year (before the ATL was in the works).
“In keeping up with the demands of a 21st-century economy and workforce, and in agreement with House and Senate leadership, we are allocating $100 million in bonds for transit funding,” Gov. Deal said at the time. “This investment will go a long way in reforming and addressing our transit system needs. Pending passage of a transportation bill I can sign, this funding will go into effect.”
I wish I could be part of the booster crowd saying how great it is that the state now has transit on its mind. But all I see is just one more transportation agency.
Harry West must be rolling over in his grave.
Note to readers,the second column in this two-part series is: Expanded rail transit needs to be part of Atlanta region’s future.