State cash for metro transit? Some GOP candidates more on board than others

By Maggie Lee

Georgia’s majority-Republican legislature has warmed to mass transit funding in metro Atlanta and other areas — a bit — saying it’s good for economic development. Some of the GOP contenders for top office this year are more on board with the trend than others.

Like their constituents who commute around Atlanta or visit, Gold Dome denizens feel the pain of traffic when they head to Downtown.

The state would also like to woo new businesses with a metro where it’s easy to get around, where freight moves with speed and where employers can offer employees the option to get to work without a car.

In Georgia, transit subsidies generally come from city, county and federal taxes, not the state. (Fares rarely come close to paying for transit in any city. Some states, like New York and Illinois do subsidize transit.)

But Georgia’s made some tentative moves lately to free up roads by improving transit  — approving bonds totaling $175 million across two different budget years. The biggest part of that is $100 million in bonds approved this year for bus rapid transit in north Fulton County.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle (l) and Secretary of State Brian Kemp on Thursday in Atlanta, just before a debate in the runoff for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. Credit: Maggie Lee

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle (l) and Secretary of State Brian Kemp on Thursday in Atlanta, just before a debate in the runoff for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. Credit: Maggie Lee

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who’s angling for the Republican nomination for governor, said that the state will need more infrastructure for a growing population. Transit, said the Gainesville native, will be one, but just one, of the tools in the toolbox.

But whether the state should help pay for that?

“There’s no question that the state has a role to play and I will be a governor that ensures that we do it,” Cagle said, just after a Thursday night debate in Atlanta. “We’re not gong to force anything on a community but we’re going to try to give a value proposition, where communities can see value.”

Secretary of State Brian Kemp, an Athens resident also looking for promotion to the state’s top office, said during the debate that the first thing he’d ask about projects is how much they cost and who would pay for them. He listed several freeway projects that he supports as well.

“I’m not at all against transit funding, but we got to ask how much is it going to cost and who’s going pay for it. I certainly support the funding at the local level,” said Kemp, speaking during the debate. “I think that’s the best way to put it, where the rubber hits the road.”

In any metro, building new rail is the most expensive transit prospect, and metro Atlanta rail boosters have ideas, with various degrees of feasibility, about where light or heavy rail could go. 

But even one billion dollars won’t buy many miles of heavy rail. 

Any extensive state payment for rail projects would probably be extremely unpopular outside of I-285 and, depending on the details, maybe not popular inside it either. 

As lawmakers approved the $100 million in transit bonds this year, they also reorganized a state agency as an umbrella organization at the top of transit management in metro Atlanta. Called The ATL, it’s meant to put all metro counties at one table for planning transit that’s integrated rather than piecemeal.

Former state Sen. Geoff Duncan (l) and state Sen. David Shafer. Credit: Maggie Lee

Former state Sen. Geoff Duncan (l) and state Sen. David Shafer. Credit: Maggie Lee

Former state Rep. Geoff Duncan of Cumming said that if he were elected lieutenant governor, he’d require “more efficient, more effective” transit before going out to Georgia taxpayers. 

“As lieutenant governor, I want to continue to … find ways to utilize these systems more, instead of watching a MARTA train go by or a MARTA bus go by with only one person on it,” he said, also on Thursday after a debate.

He said transit alone won’t fix the problems of getting around metro Atlanta — it’ll also take things like telecommuting, highway spending and more.

Duluth state Sen. David Shafer, long a top-ranking member of the chamber, said that transit has a role to play in solving the region’s traffic problems, but that it’s not the same as in New York or Chicago where there’s a lot more population density or as in Washington, D.C. where there’s a federal subsidy.

So as for state funding?

“I think we have to look at it on a case-by-case basis, I do believe that that is part of the solution,” Shafer said.

He added that it’s worth considering how roads will be used in 20 years, if, say, driverless vehicles or other technologies will change life.

Runoff elections for many offices in both parties are on July 24 and early voting is already underway.

Democrats have already nominated Stacey Abrams for governor and Sarah Riggs Amico for lieutenant governor.

Both of Thursday’s Republican runoff debates for governor and lieutenant governor are available online from the Atlanta Press Club or GPB.

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

2 replies
  1. Michael McIntyre says:

    I wish they’d just be honest and admit that Atlanta needs these expensive transit improvements, or our entire state will stagnate. They know what the numbers are for our GDP, our tax revenue, and our population. I wish they put as much fervor into transit as they have for their Capitol Hill 2040 plan, which will eventually cost billions but seems to be progressing along quite nicely. http://web02.spo.ga.gov/2040_Capitol_Hill_v9_9x9_booklet-Web.pdfReport

    Reply
  2. Michael McIntyre says:

    50% of our state’s population resides in Metro Atlanta. 75% of the state’s GDP is generated from within metro Atlanta. 50% of our tax revenue comes from personal income tax, and 25% comes from general sales tax — so you don’t have to be a genius to figure our where the majority of our state’s revenue comes from.Report

    Reply

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