Future of transit governance remains a great unknown

By David Pendered

Metro Atlanta does not have a clear picture of what sort of entity may be created to govern more than $3 billion in proposed transit investments that will be on the ballot in next year’s vote on a 1 percent transportation sales tax.

Cobb County Chairman Tim Lee cited the lack of clarity in governance as a reason Cobb wants to shift some funding from a proposed rail line, which would link MARTA’s Arts Center Station in Midtown with the Cumberland Mall area, to improving Windy Hill Road and establishing bus service from north Cobb to Midtown.

If any clarity is to come, it isn’t likely to arrive before the waning days of the 2012 state legislative session. State lawmakers could well take the entire session, possibly into April, to haggle over and adopt whatever recommendation comes from Gov. Nathan Deal’s Transit Governance Task Force.

Deal formed the task force by executive order on Sept. 7. The governor ordered the task force to work with his office to deliver a proposed law by Jan. 23, which is two weeks after the Legislature convenes on Jan. 9.

Cobb Chairman Tim Lee

Cobb Chairman Tim Lee. Credit: Cobb County

Lee said voters should know how the region’s transit systems will be governed before they vote on the transportation sales tax referendum. That vote now is slated for July 31, but the Legislature could move the referendum to the general election in November 2012.

“We don’t have a governance model that will help us identify funding, collaboration, or any indication of what our state partners are doing,” Lee said during the Atlanta Region Transportation Roundtable meeting on Sept. 28.

Cobb Chairman Tim Lee discusses reallocating sales tax funds. Credit: David Pendered

“It’s imperative that the governance model be brought together as soon as possible so citizens can understand how we’re going to implement this,” Lee said.

There’s not much news on any activities of the task force.

A spokeswoman for the governor did not respond to an email request sent Sept. 30 for an update on the task force.

A member of the task force, state Rep. Mike Jacobs (R-Atlanta), declined to comment on the posture of the governor’s initiative. Jacobs chairs the Legislature’s MARTA Oversight Committee, and served on the Legislature’s Transit Governance Study Commission, which delivered its final report in August.

Deal’s executive order makes clear his thoughts as to what sort of governance entity should be created. The order’s final statements call for proposed legislation to be introduced no later than Jan. 23 that:

  • “Establishes clearly-articulated regional transit goals, vision, and mission in order to define the purpose of the governance reform and to drive its implementation toward results for Georgia’s taxpayers;
  • “Creates a decision-making structure that includes representatives from the state and from local governments;
  • Designates a state agency or authority with the responsibilities of oversight and coordination of transit services in the metro Atlanta region.”

One issue that does seem certain is that MARTA will continue to exist. With an apparent outstanding bonded indebtedness of $1.7 billion, according to MARTA’s 2009 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, MARTA isn’t likely to be completely absorbed into some sort of new entity. The bond covenants probably wouldn’t permit that to happen.

MARTA’s general manager, Beverly Scott, said she thinks a new entity will be created to oversee all the transit systems in metro Atlanta. She thinks neither MARTA nor GRTA – two major transit agencies – will be put in change.

In the meantime, Lee said Cobb has been assured by officials with the Federal Transit Administration that the proposed reduction in sales tax dollars earmarked for the Midtown-to-Cumberland route would not ruin its chances for federal funding.

The new proposal is to fund the transit route at $585 million, down from the $856.5 million the roundtable approved in August.

“We’re backing off the rail, from funding it out of 100 percent TSPLOST [transportation sales tax dollars], to 60 percent to try to get more roadwork done, which is a bottleneck at Windy Hill/I-75/U.S. 41, and then pursue other finance options for the 40 percent that would be taken out,” Lee said after the Sept. 28 meeting.

Lee added that, despite the uncertainty over transit governance, he is committed to including transit in the overall project list.

“I wonder if transit should be part of this list,” he said. “But I believe in my heart that transit should be part of part of this list.”

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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