House, Senate publish transit rework bills, with clock ticking on state legislative session

By Maggie Lee

Both the state House and state Senate seem to have agreed on a collective name for transit in metro Atlanta: The ATL. Now they have about six weeks left in their session to decide what that big ATL might be and how it will work.

MARTA West End Station

Buses in front of the West End MARTA Station (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

It’s not that Amazon bidding that started this. It was earlier, maybe when NCR announced it would build a big office in Midtown and close one in Gwinnett County.

But the idea is gaining ground that metro Atlanta needs well-networked, efficient transit. Legislators under the Republican-dominated Gold Dome say it’s part of economic development, attracting companies, relieving traffic, getting cargo moving faster. Or they even talk about quality of life.

But it’s important enough that some of those same leaders are talking about sustained state funding for transit, something Georgia’s never done.

So the challenge is to get transit better-networked, to get local transit operators cooperating more, to make sure things work across city and county lines, that it brings people where they need to go.

If all that happens, it might bring some state financial support, possibly in the form of bonds.

But that first step, coordination, requires bringing a broad spectrum of opinion to the table.

On the one hand, there are folks far from Atlanta that don’t have any use for transit and don’t care to bankroll a bus, much less a train. On the other end, there are the people of Fulton and DeKalb (and more recently, Clayton) who have been paying a MARTA sales tax for years and see commuters from further out, parking in their park-and-ride lots, as something of free-riders.

Start with the longer state House pitch — some of the ideas come up in the Senate too.

A map shows the proposed outlines of districts on a new transit board proposed by state House lawmakers. Credit: Maggie Lee

A map shows the proposed outlines of districts on a new transit board proposed by state House lawmakers. Credit: Maggie Lee

House Bill 930 would reconstitute the 13-county Georgia Regional Transportation Authority as the Atlanta-region Transit Link, The ATL. Ten of its board members would each represent a “transit district,” and be chosen by local leaders from that district.

The districts were drawn to represent transit corridors, said bill sponsor Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, chairman of the House Transportation Committee and of an ongoing House transit study commission.

The other four board members would be the governor, the state transportation commissioner, one appointee of the lieutenant governor and one appointee of the state House speaker. It would start work by Jan. 1, 2019.

What The ATL would be is a planning agency, in charge of developing a Regional Transit Plan. That document is key because federal funders want to see it — see proof of sensible planning — before they write any checks.

Right now, regional transit planning is part of what the Atlanta Regional Commission does as part of its Regional Transportation Plan. The ARC develops that not alone, but in close cooperation with regional transit providers and local governments.

So, one of The ATL’s primary functions would be that planning, said Tanner. “Then as soon as the board is stood up, some of these other funding options will start to flow through The ATL.”

What is that money? Well a few things. First, the bill proposes a one percent sales tax on concessions at the Atlanta airport, and a 50-cent charge on each trip taken via taxi or ride-hailing apps, like Uber and Lyft. (There would be a similar tax at the Savannah airport, and that money would stay in Savannah for its transit.)

Tanner said the exact calculations aren’t ready yet, but he expects that would raise about $40 million annually. That doesn’t pay for a lot of transit per se, but there’s more.

Counties in the region could also ask their voters for a transit sales tax of up to a penny for up to 30 years. (Though Cobb can split, perhaps allowing a south Cobb district to ask for transit spending that the rest of the county doesn’t want.)

MARTA Downtown. Credit: Kelly Jordan

MARTA Downtown. Credit: Kelly Jordan

If a county does a transit sales tax, the money stays in the county, but it would be spent on whatever is in that ATL-approved Regional Transit Plan.

What the ATL wouldn’t do, said Tanner, is transit planning that gets way down in the weeds, like adjusting a MARTA bus route.

He also said, repeatedly, that under his bill, MARTA keeps all the services it has as well as existing project lists.

So that’s the House plan. (Bill text here.)

The Senate one is a little shorter, and some elements are similar, like a transit sales tax. But the goal is the same: getting transit better coordinated.

Its sponsor, state Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, presented Senate Bill 386 for its first hearing on Monday.

His bill would create the Atlanta-region Transit Link “ATL” Commission, as a new body within GRTA.

The members of that commission would be: the governor, the state commissioner of transportation, the CEO of MARTA, the mayor of Atlanta, the president of the Atlanta City Council, two folks from each of the other MARTA jurisdictions (Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton) plus two folks from any other county that sets up a sales tax for transit and joins the ATL Commission.

“GRTA and the ATL Commission would do funding, planning and construction and MARTA would be the operator,” said Beach. “It’s imperative that we have one unified operator.”

So that’s a key difference: just one transit operator under Beach’s proposal, MARTA.

The next hearing on his bill is scheduled Wednesday. Tanner’s bill is likely to get hearings soon as well.

They have until the annual legislative session ends on March 29 if any legislation is to pass this year.

Updated with House bill number and link to text

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