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.