By Guest Columnist BRIAN GIST, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center
For years, the idea of a comprehensive regional transit system in metro Atlanta seemed unattainable. It’s hard to even imagine taking a train from Decatur to SunTrust Park, or from Duluth to Atlanta’s airport.
There is widespread acknowledgment that transit is an integral part of the solution to Atlanta’s famous traffic woes, and that MARTA and other transit agencies provide important services. But many have argued that metro Atlanta has too many counties and transit agencies, with too little coordination and funding to connect the necessary dots. And politicians seemed less supportive of transit than the citizens they represent.
But now it seems that the issue of regional transit is finally gaining steam.
The General Assembly is considering legislation that could address many of these problems and help make regional transit in metro Atlanta a reality. Senate Bill 386, introduced by Sen. Brandon Beach (R-Alpharetta), and House Bill 930, introduced by Rep. Kevin Tanner (R-Dawsonville), both seek to move the issue of regional transit forward. Beach and Tanner deserve kudos for their leadership on this issue, and their willingness to take on a complicated and long-running problem. Both bills passed out of their respective chambers on Feb. 28 and are now being considered by the other chamber.
The bills attempt to address several of the major challenges facing transit in the metro area. We have multiple transit providers and limited coordination between them, but travel patterns crisscross the region and span different government jurisdictions. Currently a transit line from the Cumberland Business District to Duluth would require crossing four different counties and three different transit systems.
One of the reasons for our disjointed system is the heavy reliance on local funding for transit service. Depending on local funding creates a county-by-county approach that emphasizes local concerns and projects over regional ones. And although transportation in metro Atlanta is one of the most pressing issues facing the state, Georgia has not provided meaningful state-level funding for transit.
But we need to solve these problems while respecting the existing, long-term transit investments that have already been made. The members of MARTA have funded transit with local tax dollars since the 1970s. Recently, Clayton County and the City of Atlanta overwhelmingly approved additional sales tax increases to build more transit. As transit service expands regionally, this growth must support–not undermine–the transit we already have.
Both SB 386 and HB 930 would create an entity called “the ATL” to facilitate transit service throughout the region. The ATL would help identify projects, coordinate service across county lines, and provide state funding for key projects. Most importantly, the ATL would provide this regional leadership without undermining MARTA’s existing service.
However, both bills have room for improvement.
First, state funds should be prioritized for regionally-important projects that serve multiple jurisdictions. Even with these bills, the majority of transit funding will continue to come from local sales taxes, and individual counties are unlikely to prioritize projects that span multiple jurisdictions. A transit line from Cobb County to Gwinnett County is incredibly important to the region, but none of the four counties involved can build the project on their own. The ATL should ensure that sufficient funding is available for regionally-significant projects.
Second, there should be a functional connection between where any new state transit funding is raised and where it is spent. HB 930 contemplates a new sales tax at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and a fee on ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft. Of course, not every dime raised at the airport should be spent there. But the areas that generate the majority of this new transit funding should be the primary beneficiaries of its use.
Third, MARTA’s heavy rail lines will continue to be the foundation of metro Atlanta’s transit system, and this foundation must remain strong as the system expands. As new counties connect to this system and the number of transit riders increases, the ATL must ensure that additional investments are made in the heavy rail system to accommodate this growth. Supporting an expanded regional transit network should not fall solely on the MARTA counties.
Fourth, we must begin looking at ways to provide longer distance rail service, both as commuter rail in metro Atlanta and inter-city connections to other cities in Georgia. These rail investments would provide an alternative to driving for longer distance trips and improve connectivity throughout the state. A good place to start would be appointing members to the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority. This body, charged with overseeing the development of passenger rail service in Georgia, has been unstaffed and unfunded for years.
Finally, a formal mechanism should be created to give transit riders a voice in the decisions made by the ATL. Both bills in the General Assembly would staff the board of the ATL with political appointees. But a voice and a vote should also be given to the transit riders – the people who actually use the system – in the ATL’s decisions. Whether through a designated board seat or a citizen advisory panel, this new regional transit body should allow transit riders to participate in the process.
The General Assembly’s interest in transit is encouraging and long overdue. Metro Atlanta’s continued growth and success relies on addressing our transportation challenges, and any solution to our traffic problem will require a substantial investment in transit. The two bills represent bold and important steps toward a more robust regional transit system in metro Atlanta. Georgia lawmakers should work out a compromise bill and include these recommendations in the final days of the 2018 legislative session.
Note to readers: Brian Gist specializes in Georgia transportation and air work at the SELC.