Passing regional transit governance in 2011 a must for transportation sales tax to pass

It all comes down to this.

A regional transportation sales tax in metro Atlanta will not pass unless MARTA and transit are treated fairly.

And there’s no way MARTA and transit will be treated fairly unless House Bill 277 fixed of its anti-MARTA flaws or unless a regional transit governance bill is passed in this legislative session.

Legislative leaders have said there’s no way they will reopen HB 277 this session.

So that really leaves only one option. Pass a regional transit governance bill during this legislative session.

Let me explain my reasoning.

HB 277 has a fatal provision in it. None of the new revenue collected in the sales tax can go towards supporting existing MARTA operations.

That means that residents of Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb, who have been paying the MARTA penny tax for about 40 years, will be short-changed, literally. Ideally the new tax would allow the region to help pay for the backbone of our regional transit system. But MARTA is the only transit system carved out from such funding.

“As a representative of Atlanta and DeKalb, the answer from a political standpoint, most people in those areas are going to have to see action on MARTA before they support an action on T-Splost,” said State Sen. Jason Carter, a Democrat.

In short, there’s no way the tax will pass in Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb if this inequity continues to exist.

John Eaves, chairman of the Fulton County Commission, said there is “no guarantee” the tax will be approved by voters. “There’s some inherent unfairness, and we do feel there are some inherent weaknesses in the bill,” Eaves said at a recent South Metro area economic development conference. “We are recommending that the bill be changed.”

Even State Rep. Mike Jacobs, a Republican who is chairman of the MARTA Oversight Committee, understands there’s a problem. At a recent panel put on by the Sustainable Atlanta Roundtable, Jacobs said: “I acknowledge that it’s an issue that needs to be addressed.”

He went on to say: “I am a DeKalb County legislator who rides MARTA who pays the MARTA penny everytime I go to the store. I would love more participation and take it off the shoulders of Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb.”

But instead of “fixing” HB 277, Jacobs said: “We are going to look at it through the transit governance committee.”

The Atlanta Regional Commission’s Regional Transit Committee has proposed draft legislation for a regional transit governance bill. But there’s also a legislative committee charged with the same task, and there’s some who believe this issue can wait till the 2012 session.

But that will be too late.

The Regional Transportation Roundtable will be unveiling its “project list” in October. If regional transit governance is not addressed in advance of developing the project list, there’s no way that transit will be given a fair shake given the constraints of HB 277.

State Rep. Stacey Abrams, a Democrat who is the House minority leader, said she voted against HB 277 because it “excluded MARTA.”

But she doesn’t have much hope that the situation will be addresssed in 2011.

“I don’t think we are going to do something this year,” Abrams said at a recent speech to the Atlanta Kiwanis Club.

But I asked House Speaker David Ralston, when he spoke to the Atlanta Press Club on Feb. 17 whether transit governance could be passed this year. “It’s still on the table.,” Ralston said. “It’s still being discussed.”

Beverly Scott, MARTA’s general manager, respects the political process, and she is pleased that the “speaker is open” to the addressing transit governance during this session.

“The advantage passing a transit governance bill is that we would take a major unknown off the table,” Scott said. “It’s difficult to pass these referendums under any circumstances. One of the major issues for people is not only what’s on the list but who is going to deliver what’s on the list. We need to have strategic thinking about how all the projects come together into a whole so you are not dealing with just projects.”

Having a regional transit structure would have several advantages, she added.

“There are synergies and cost savings and avoidance of redundancies if we could do strategic thinking,” Scott said. “We are very pleased with the step that’s been taken with the concept legislation. All the MARTA Act restrictions have been eliminated in that.”

While that concept calls for one more layer, it doesn’t have to be an inefficient layer,” Scott added. And she said that it could be structured so that MARTA could be combined with the Georgia Regional Transit Authority so that there would not be another layer.

No matter what, Todd Long, the Georgia Department of Transportation, has described the regional transportation sales tax referendum as “Plan A; and there is no Plan B.”

If that’s true, all the more reason to make sure we don’t screw this up.

“Transit governance needs to be addressed during this session so we can get projects on the Roundtable list,” said Brandon Beach, a GDOT board member who is president and CEO of Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce: “The business community will want this addressed before they contribute to a campaign.”

So the bottom line is simple.

If state and regional leaders really want the transportation sales tax to pass in August, 2012, they will need to make sure that a transit governance bill passes during the 2011 legislative session.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

9 replies
  1. Henry Batten says:

    I don’t think that state and regional leaders “really” want to see the transportation sales tax bill pass in August of 2012. This whole thng is really being mismanaged.Report

    Reply
  2. juanita driggs says:

    Agree with Mr. Batten fulliy. When this “creative” regional approach to address transportation issues passed it was already dead on arrival because it had enough built in complexitiy, awkwardness and stonewalling opportunities to give the usual non creative gaggle of legislators plenty of cover to temporize and do nothing. So far it’s running pretty close to plan. Should anybody be surprised? I will be amazed if speaker Ralson displays any leadership ingenuity on this issue, either this legislative session or the next. I wonder why you continue to invest so much editorial capital in something we already know how it’s going to turn out.Report

    Reply
  3. BPJ says:

    I’m sorry to see such cynicism in the comments, when the project list has not even been compiled.

    4 points to keep in mind:
    (1) For decades, we in metro Atlanta have been sending our tax dollars to the state, and the good ol’ boys under the Gold Dome have been raking it off and sending it to other parts of the state, and what the DOT does do in our region is often not what we would have chosen. Now we finally have the chance for a pot of money that we control, for a list that we see before we vote, and some people want to give up before we’ve even seen the project list?

    (2) The taxes on gasoline (the motor fuel tax and the sales tax on gasoline) will provide less and less money over the next 25 years. We will have to move to another means of funding transportation (roads & transit), and the general sales tax seems the most likely route. So the oft-heard argument that “we should just rely on gas taxes as we always have” doesn’t hold up.

    (3) The legislation excludes “existing MARTA operations”. Stop and think about that. As I read it, it would not exclude MARTA heavy rail expansion, MARTA light rail, expanded MARTA bus routes, or MARTA building & operating transit on the Beltline.

    (4) When the project list comes out, it will not be the list I would have come up with. Nor will it be the list you would have come up with. That’s the point. We actually have to live together in this region with other people who want different things and have other priorities. I assume the list will not have as much intown transit as I would like. I bet it will have more intown transit than some suburbanites would like. Can we actually compromise in this country anymore? Think about it.

    (None of this is intended to dispute Ms. Saporta’s argument that the best option would be to rework transit governance, and make a few changes to the T-splost bill. I agree with that.)Report

    Reply
  4. Michael says:

    Atlanta will still prevail. If Gwinnett and Cobb want to continue to deal with transporation woes so be it. Private corporation should get behind the beltline project, which will dramtically increase transit and higher quaility of living inside the perimeter. However a second airport or six runway will be back on the table when Southwest establish their hub here. And no one seems to be talking about the water issue anymore.Report

    Reply
  5. Will the last Democrat in Georgia please turn off the lights..... says:

    Regional transit governance? Are you kidding? Maria, I thought you heard, passing the myriad of Illegal immigration bills and promoting the costly and time-consuming litigation that comes with it is the top legislative priority at the Georgia General Assembly this year. It’s common knowledge that illegal immigrants (and to many Georgians, legal immigrants) are a scourage on the face of Georgian life and society and we must do what we can in the great state of Georgia to run them out of our schools, our hospitals, our roadside taverns, our high-paying jobs and get them away from our women (lets just not get too carried away and discourage them from taking our menial low-paying jobs that everybody says they want, but nobody really wants like picking produce and harvesting crops for hours on end each day in the agricultural fields of South Georgia and, of course, being our underpaid nannies, wait staff, maids, landscapers, janitors and toilet cleaners, except , of course, after our unemployment has run out during a deep recession).

    Besides, everybody knows that HB 277 was created just build new turn lanes out in Cobb, Gwinnett and Forsyth, anyways. All the talk of transit was just to get you desperate and naive intowners to foolishly support it to the benefit of the OTP suburbanites!Report

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  6. Concerned Atlantan says:

    A large portion of the one penny funds in the TSPLOST should be allocated to MARTA capital needs – newer buses, etc. This would enable MARTA to dedicate more of its one penny to operations. We need to eliminate the artificial 50/50 split, at least for the time regional TSPLOST taxes collected.

    All of the this transit governance chit-chat side steps the big question of the other counties paying for transit. Personally, I don’t think it’s so complicated. Cobb, Gwinnett and Clayton need to decide if they are urban counties. If they are, they need to vote the one penny MARTA sales tax and become part of “MARTA.” If the MARTA name is so offensive, change it. A portion of the one penny collected in these counties need to help pay for MARTA operations and also transit service in these counties. The five county region is a huge amount of geography. As a comparison, New York City is 305 square miles. Chicago is 228 square miles.

    Clayton is 143 square miles, Cobb is 340 square miles, DeKalb is 228 square miles, Fulton is 429 square miles and Gwinnett is 433 square miles. This is a total of 1,573 miles square miles!! It will take decades to increase density to make transit really pay off. The notion we should have anything other than commuter rail to outlying counties beyond the core 5 is ridiculous. MARTA’s true financial challenge is that Fulton/DeKalb do not have the population density to support heavy rail transit + bus service. That’s just a fact.

    If Cobb, Gwinnett and Clayton do not want to participate, we just need to call it a day and ensure we build out Fulton/DeKalb in a way that leverages transit investment.Report

    Reply
  7. jm says:

    The bill is not flawed. There’s plenty of potential support for MARTA and transit in the bill.

    Just another beat from the same drum. If Atlantans want to see this city swallowed in traffic, then they should vote against the bill. Otherwise, vote for it.Report

    Reply

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