State legislators need to stop trying to take control of MARTA or Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
Some legislators just don’t get it. They keep orchestrating plots or plans or bills for the state to take over our largest public transit system and the world’s busiest airport.
These are the same state leaders who have done virtually nothing to support either.
MARTA is the largest transit system in the United States that does not receive financial support from the state.
But are thse state legislators trying to fix that problem? Of course not. All they keep trying to do is find more ways to meddle in the agency’s business.
The ringleader in state control of both MARTA and the airport is Rep. Earl Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs), who for some reason has made it his mission in life to destroy the notion of local control when it comes to the urban areas of Atlanta.
Among his partners in these hostile takeover attempts have been State Rep. Bob Smith (R-Watkinsville) ,who is the sponsor of House Bill 644 to take over the airport; and State Rep. Jill Chambers (R-Atlanta), who uses her position as chair of the MARTOC oversight committee as a platform to be a thorn in the agency’s side. In fact, she regularly calls for more state influence over MARTA.
The state of Georgia already has four state officials on its 18-member board: the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Transportation, the executive director of the Georgia Regional Transportation Association, the Georgia Building Authority and the Revenue Commissioner.
All these state officials have a vote on the MARTA board even though they don’t pay to play.
And MARTOC, the House oversight committee, also oversteps its bounds. It keeps demanding all sorts of records, studies and data from MARTA officials. Chairman Chambers sometimes acts as though she is MARTA’s boss, repeatedly making unfounded accusations against the agency, criticizing its operations and calling its leaders on the carpet.
Again, is Chambers offering the state’s assistance to help in MARTA’s financially-strapped operations? Quite the contrary.
So why does MARTOC even exist?
From what transportation officials can tell, no other transit authority in the country has to answer to a state legislative oversight body unless it’s a state authority.
The only way the state should have any say or oversight of MARTA is if it’s a significant financial contributor. Otherwise, it should stay out of MARTA’s business.
Now I’m not saying that there should be no oversight of MARTA. Quite the contrary. It is one of the most important assets in metro Atlanta, and everything should be done to make sure it is operating efficiently and effectively.
But that oversight belongs to the people in the three governmental jurisdictions that support it: Fulton County, DeKalb County and the city of Atlanta. For nearly 40 years, people living and working in those jurisdictions have been paying a penny sales tax to build and support the system.
Those are the only governments with moral perogative to make sure MARTA is as good as it can be.
So how depressing is it that MARTA has to go begging to the state for the flexibility to be able to spend the money it raises where it’s most needed.
All MARTA has been asking the state is to remove an archaic rule that mandates that the agency split its sales tax — 50 percent for capital improvements and 50 percent for operations. Since MARTA is not expanding, it would like to spend more on its operations.
No other transit system in the country has to live within similar constraints, even where state governments contribute a substantial amount of annual operating support.
In a rational world, the only justifiable move would be for the state to totally divorce itself from any say-so over MARTA’s operations.
Or the state could finally become a true partner with MARTA by providing a substantial financial assistance in the annual operations of our major public transit system. Then, and only then, should the state play any role in the governance and oversight of MARTA.
The argument for the state to take control over Hartsfield-Jackson makes even less sense, if that’s possible.
After all, what role did the state play in the building, financing and development of the airport? None.
It has been the city of Atlanta, under the leadership of multiple mayors including Williams Hartsfield and Maynard Jackson, that had the leadership, took the risks and made the financial investment to create the world’s busiest airport.
And who has benefited by the city of Atlanta’s foresight, commitment and dedication to air travel? The state of Georgia.
Economic development officials will be quick to tell you that, more often than not, the top reason companies move or expand in Georgia is Hartsfield-Jackson. So the ripples of the city of Atlanta’s investment in the airport have been felt throughout the state.
But instead of thanking the city for building and managing the airport, state legislators have repeatedly sought an unfriendly takeover of Hartsfield-Jackson.
It makes no sense. It’s not as if the state has proven to be such a great manager of its entities. Think the Georgia Department of Transportation, widely viewed as a bloated agency that has been unable to deliver projects within budget or within any kind of reasonable timetable.
It’s not just MARTA and the airport. Unfortunately, one could make a similar case about the state’s limited financial role in a host of metro institutions, such as Grady Hospital — a centerpiece of the state’s public health system.
There’s a common theme. In life, there are givers and there are takers.
The state of Georgia is a taker. Under its current leadership, it’s clear that key Georgia leaders just care about power and control rather than doing what’s right for our region and our state.
Until the state begins treating the Atlanta region with economic fairness and until the state becomes a real partner in our future vitality, it should leave us alone.