What a week.
It started off with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood telling Georgia that it needs to get its act together when it comes to high-speed rail and transit.
Although LaHood didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know, it’s always reaffirming to have the most powerful transportation official in the country tell state leaders that they’ve been asleep at the switch.
“There has to be a commitment by state government that transit is important,” LaHood, one of the key Republicans in President Barack Obama’s administration, said in an interview with Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Jay Bookman.
As we all know, the state of Georgia does not invest in MARTA, the largest transit agency in the country that receives no operating support from its home state.
We all know that the state has refused to move forward on commuter rail service between Atlanta and Lovejoy and later Macon despite the federal government having allocated $87 million to the project for more than a decade.
And we also know the state has not been planning for the high-speed rail, a priority of the Obama administration. For leadership on high-speed rail, just look to our neighbors — North Carolina on one border and Florida on the other.
It’s easy for us to blame our state leadership for inaction.
But that’s not the complete picture of where we are.
As a contrast to the state’s incompetence, the Atlanta region is getting its act together on transit.
Just this week, our regional leaders moved one step closer to creating a metro-wide transit system that would implement Concept 3, a transit plan that has received the overwhelming endorsement from our top regional leaders.
Usually governance discussions can put folks to sleep. But bear with me. The Transit Implementation Board on Wednesday approved a governance structure that can guide the development of transit in our region for decades to come.
As a way to avoid having to go to the state legislature, the new entity will be a separate-standing committee of the Atlanta Regional Commission.
The Regional Transit Committee, if approved by all the partnering agencies, will be the most regional and comprehensive body to oversee transit that metro Atlanta has ever seen.
The structure would be more extensive than MARTA, which only serves three jurisdictions (the city of Atlanta, DeKalb and Fulton counties).
The Regional Transit Committee (RTC) would incorporate 12 metro counties (those that now have some level of transit, either through MARTA, their own transit system or GRTA Xpress buses) and would be flexible to add another eight counties.
So this is the proposed make-up of the RTC:
The voting members would include the top elected officials from each of the 12 counties and the mayor of Atlanta. It would include the board chair of MARTA; the chair of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority; the chair of the Georgia Department of Transportation (or their designee from the board); three gubernatorial appointees; the state’s transportation planning director and the chair of the Metro Atlanta Mayor’s Association.
(There also would be several non-voting members: the director of the Atlanta Regional Commission, GRTA’s executive director, MARTA’s general manager and GDOT’s commissioner).
All votes would need to receive approval from a simple majority of that board.
But if there were to be a significant proposed change to Concept 3 or the Transportation Improvement Plan or the Regional Transportation Plan, there would be a “dual-track” vote. A majority of the 13 top elected officials (from the 12 counties and the city of Atlanta) also would be needed. That is one more safety net to make sure regional leaders remain in control.
“This is a huge step for this region to develop a governance structure for transit that represents the region,” said Doug Tollett, a governor appointee who serves as vice chairman of the Transit Implementation board, after during Wednesday’s meeting.
During Wednesday’s meeting, GDOT board member Emory McClinton, who represents the 5th Congressional District – Atlanta, questioned whether there were too many state officials with voting privileges.
“Is this a regional or statewide board?” McClinton asked. “Is this a board that’s being set up for the governor to control the governance structure, a governor who is not paying (for transit)?”
McClinton was assured that region would have the most votes. The way I count it, the RTC would have 21 board members, including six from the state — five of which will be named by the governor.
Personally, I think that gives the governor way too much of a voice for transit in our region — especially when the state hasn’t paid to play. But my MARTA friends said it was better to have a big tent with the hope that the state eventually would understand the need to invest in transit.
(As a reminder, MARTA has a half-dozen state officials on its board, and they have not been paying players in more than three decades).
All that said, when it comes to transit, we are at an amazing moment in metro Atlanta’s history. There is tremendous consensus and good will in our region — be it urban, suburban or exurban — and there’s growing respect and confidence in MARTA and its general manager, Beverly Scott.
If Secretary LaHood really wants to see Georgia get its act together on transit, he needs to look no farther than the Atlanta region. It’s the best argument that exists for federal transportation funds to flow directly to our region rather than through our state government bureaucracy.
And for those state leaders — past, present or future — who still believe the state needs to take over MARTA, you are out of step with the progress we have made as region.
Now we need the ability to invest in our regional transit plan by seizing on the trust and cooperation that currently exists in metro Atlanta.
Footnote: The Association County Commissioners of Georgia recently released a report examining how other states have increased transportation funding since 2000. The report: “Coping with Transportation Funding Deficits: A Survey of the States,” looks at how other states have gotten their act together when it comes to transit and transportation. The complete report is available at www.accg.org.