A transit evolution is underway in metro Atlanta.
But what form it will take is still a mystery.
What key regional leaders do know — the status quo is no longer acceptable.
The incremental progress for transit is literally running on parallel tracks.
On one track is the state legislature and the state government. After several years of inaction, the state legislature passed a transportation bill that will permit regions to vote on a penny sales tax two years from now.
The bill was flawed, however, because it singled out MARTA — stipulating that none of those sales tax revenues could go to existing MARTA operations. The bill also mandated a new governance structure for the MARTA board and established a transit subcommittee to review how the region will invest in transit and who will make those decisions.
On the second track is the multi-year effort to create a regional transit plan and governance body — a process driven by leaders from the Atlanta region.
That effort, currently known as the Regional Transit Committee of the Atlanta Regional Commission, held a daylong retreat on June 2 when several ground-breaking developments occurred that could have a major impact on where we go as a region.
The goal for the retreat was to come up with a governance structure for transit in the region and to elect a chairman and vice chairman.
But perhaps the most significant development that occurred at the retreat was when MARTA General Manager Beverly Scott and Kirk Fjelstul, interim director of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority urged the group to be bold.
Up until now, the consensus has been to create a new regional transit oversight committee enabling each of the operators — MARTA, Cobb County Transit, GRTA Xpress buses and others — to keep their autonomy.
In short, under this model, there would be no consolidation of individual transit operations and therefore limited opportunities for operational cost savings. That means each entity would continue to have its own human resources, legal, finance, security departments.
“We have got a real opportunity and a platform to really consider transit governance,” Fjelstul said. “We want to make sure that with the transit funding we have, the public needs to have confidence that we will spend it well.”
Scott said this was an opportunity to truly integrate regional transit.
Tad Leithead, chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission, admitted that the reason the umbrella model had been proposed was because there was “a certain amount of comfort” to keep each entity intact.
But with GRTA and MARTA leaders urging for greater consolidation, Leithead said it was time to revisit the issue.
“If those two most significant agencies would like to do something more bold, more aggressive and more significant, we can do that in this room,” Leithead said at the retreat.
Although proposing a consolidated metro transit agency wasn’t on the agenda of the Regional Transit Committee work session, the idea and the opportunity is real.
And now the metro leadership to help mold the future for transit in the region is in place.
At the retreat, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed was elected chairman of the transit effort, and Gwinnett County Chairman Charles Bannister was elected vice chairman. The balance was both symbolic and significant. A mayor and a county chairman. A MARTA jurisdiction and a suburban county. Two localities that have transit and need more.
And both Reed and Bannister, who served together in the legislature, acknowledge that the transportation bill just signed by the governor did not do enough for MARTA and transit.
In an earlier conversation before he was elected chairman, Reed was asked whether he agreed with critics who believe MARTA was shortchanged in the transportation bill.
“I think the criticism is fair,” Reed said, adding that the bill is helping MARTA in the near-term by removing the restriction that half of its sales tax revenue must go to capital and half to operating for three years.
“We now have the opportunity to move the conversation around MARTA, and in subsequent years improve the legislation,” Reed said. “In another legislative session, you will continue to improve the bill.”
After the retreat, Reed said: “I’m just ready to go to work. I think this is a strong partnership, and I want to be a strong partner to the region.”
Bannister said it was “time to get something done.” The region has spent years talking about transit, and Bannister said that “I would like to pick it up a notch and move forward.”
Specifically, Bannister said the transportation bill needed to be improved. “Certainly we’ve got to do more for transit in another bill,” he said.
The retreat also agreed on a governance structure for a new transit agency — even though this proposal did not take into account what a consolidated transit system could look like.
The group agreed that the 20 counties that are included in the “Concept 3” regional transit plan would be eligible to be part of the new governance structure.
But to have voting rights, all representatives on the new board would have to have to meet some “pay to play” standard For example, a county would have to have put in place some kind of funding for transit to have a vote on the board.
The group also decided that each participating county would select a mayor from that county to serve on the board. Plus, the mayor of Atlanta automatically would be on that board.
Lastly, the board would include an appointee by the governor, the lt. governor and the speaker of the house. There was some discussion about whether the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Transportation would have a seat on the board.
The sensitivity on this issue is that the State of Georgia, with the exception of GRTA buses, has not provided regular financial support to the region’s transit operations, particularly MARTA.
The RTC group also is studying how to design a weighted voting system so that the more populated counties that contribute the most to transit will have a proportional voice on the board.
At the same time this work is going on, the legislature also has its transit governance subcommittee, and it is unknown how much coordination there will be between the legislative efforts and the Atlanta region’s efforts.
But Leithead he sees both efforts melding into one rather than ending up in a head-on collision.
“The Regional Transit Committee and the legislative Transit Subcommittee will collaborate because there’s so much overlap,” Leithead said.
But the real opportunity that is unfolding is that the Atlanta region is starting to think about consolidating all our disparate transit agencies into one integrated system — fulfilling the original vision of four decades ago when MARTA was supposed to be a five-county transit agency.
“I think there will be a commitment to have a fully integrated transit system,” Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker said after the work session. “I think there will be a commitment to do this, but there will need to be a transition plan.”
At least now we have a courageous goal to work on — creating a regional Atlanta transit system once and for all.