By Guest Columnist MICHAEL W. TYLER, chairman of MARTA’s board and a partner with the Kilpatrick Stockton law firm.
Forty-five years ago a group of visionary Georgia leaders looked into the future and saw a greater Atlanta metropolitan region linked together through one regional transit system. Consequently, in 1965 the Georgia General Assembly created Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority.
In creating MARTA, the state legislature’s goal was to help transform the Atlanta region into a world-class metropolitan area with world-class transportation infrastructure that would benefit the entire state.
The original vision of the legislature was to launch an initial five-county regional transit system comprised of Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnet, Cobb and Clayton counties. These five counties were given the right to choose by referendum whether to join the system and to enact a one-cent sales tax to help fund MARTA.
Ultimately in 1971, only Fulton and DeKalb counties voted to adopt the one-cent sales tax and join the system. For a host of reasons, some valid and some not so valid, Cobb, Gwinnett and Clayton counties opted not to join in. Consequently, an opportunity for a comprehensive regional and financially sustainable transit system was lost at the onset and, until recently, the momentum was never regained.
However, today, 45 years after MARTA was created, we stand at the threshold of a marvelous opportunity to finally move forward with the creation of a truly regional transit system – if we can only summon the will to allocate the resources to do so. In large measure, our success or failure will depend upon the caliber of our leadership.
In the past, when we had progressive and cohesive state and regional leadership, we outpaced the rest of the nation in investing in the necessary transportation infrastructure to propel our state’s economic development to the national forefront. From the 1960s through the 1980s, Georgia consistently invested more of its gross domestic product in transportation infrastructure than the rest of the nation.
The results of this investment were, at the time, truly prodigious. We built the world’s busiest airport. We built the largest rail network in the Southeast. We built the fourth-largest and fastest-growing seaport in the country. We built an extensive interstate and intrastate highway system.
Unfortunately, beginning in the late 1980s, Georgia’s investment in transportation infrastructure slipped substantially and dramatically. Today, Georgia ranks next to last in the amount of money invested per capita in transportation infrastructure. Out of the 50 states, only Tennessee invests less per capita than Georgia.
Consequently, it was no surprise when the U.S. Department of Transportation earlier this year announced major, new multi-million dollar grants to our Southeast competitor states of North Carolina and Florida to develop high-speed rail and turned down the State of Georgia’s request entirely.
Not surprisingly, Florida invests almost twice as much per capita in transportation than does Georgia, while North Carolina invests in excess of 30 percent more than Georgia. In explaining Georgia’s failure to qualify for the high-speed rail grants, which required matching local funding not provided by Georgia, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood bluntly explained that, “Georgia needs to get its act together.”
An indication that Georgia may at long last be “getting its act together” came in the General Assembly’s April 2010 passing of House Bill 277 — otherwise known as the Transportation Investment Act of 2010.
While HB 277 is far from ideal, it nonetheless provides our state and region with the best opportunity since the creation of MARTA to finally proceed with the building of a seamless transit system that effectively covers the entire Atlanta metropolitan area.
Federal funding from the New Starts Program will be key to our ability to create an expanded regional transit system, with MARTA at its core. HB 277, if modified, could provide the essential mechanism to obtain the local funding necessary to leverage the federal New Starts funding.
The glaring problem however, is that HB 277, in its current form, does not allow any tax revenues that would be received from the 2012 regional transportation referendum to be used for the operation and maintenance of the current MARTA system.
Unless sufficient local funding is provided for the existing MARTA system, it is a foregone conclusion that, under the New Starts Program, the federal government will not provide any funding for the creation of an expanded regional transit system.
We simply cannot allow this to happen. The necessity and potential benefits of creating a regional transit system are too great for us to squandar this golden opportunity to move forward. Now is the time for a new generation of Georgia leaders to rise above partisanship and parochial politics and do what is in the best interest of the entire region and state.
The passing of HB 277 was a step in the right direction. The leadership of the General Assembly, along with Gov.-elect Nathan Deal, must now work zealously to assure that HB 277 is modified to allow MARTA to receive funding from the 2012 regional transportation referendum for the operation and maintenance of the current MARTA system.
If this modification is adopted, our region and our state will be well-positioned to take a giant leap forward by passing a referendum in 2012 that can actually provide the funding needed to advance the realization of our 45-year goal of building a world-class regional transit system.