By Maria Saporta
PHILADELPHIA – At the Bistro St Tropez restaurant overlooking the Schuylkill River and the 30th Street train station, Amtrak’s headquarters and multiple modes of public transportation, about 30 regional leaders from Atlanta gathered at an invitation-only dinner with Keith Parker, MARTA’s general manager and CEO.
They had been invited by Brad Alexander, a senior vice president of McGuire Woods Consulting, who wanted to bring together members of the 18th annual LINK delegation from Atlanta who were interested in regional transit and MARTA.
The energy in the room was contagious. As different people spoke, a prevalent theme emerged — transit is at a real tipping point in the Atlanta region.
Clayton County Commission Chair Jeff Turner spoke of the very real possibility of residents in his county voting to join MARTA in November.
Brandon Beach, a Republican state senator from North Fulton, said it was time for metro Atlanta to have a regional transit system and that it should receive financial support from the state. MARTA is the largest transit agency in the United States to receive no annual operating support from its state government.
Dana Lemon, a board member of the Georgia Department of Transportation, said it was vital for the state to play a major role in developing the multimodal transportation terminal in downtown Atlanta.
As the conversation continued —one that also included the Atlanta BeltLine, the Atlanta Streetcar, transit-oriented development and the business community – it was obvious that a significant shift towards MARTA and transit is underway.
“It’s a new day for transit,” said Brandon Beach, president and CEO of the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce who also represents District 21 in the state Senate. “I will tell you this, I have never seen the spirit of cooperation like we have now. I believe every one wants regional transit.”
If the Clayton County Commission votes in June to put a MARTA referendum on November’s ballot, and if voters pass it, it will be the first time in 43 years that a new county will have been added to the MARTA system.
Clayton Chairman Turner, who was on his second LINK trip, made it clear he is “100 percent for transit.”
In an interview, Turner said he wants to make sure that first the county hears from its citizens before the commission makes a decision on whether the referendum should be for a half penny or a full penny sales tax. If it’s a half penny, Turner said the county likely will be limited to having only bus service. But if it decides to go for a penny tax, it likely would be able to include rail transit in its future.
“As far as my one vote, I would be for the full penny so we could have rail expansion,” Turner said.
If the commission votes to put a referendum on the ballot, it will need to do so by July 2 – meaning at its June 3 or June 17 board meetings. Two questions will be on the ballot — one to approve a sales tax and the other to join MARTA.
“What I really want people to understand is that both need to pass for it to happen,” Turner said. “You can’t pass the sales tax and vote not to join MARTA. The sales tax is directly tied to joining MARTA.”
From his conversations with citizens throughout the county so far, Turner said that the majority want transit, and “they want it yesterday.” Clayton residents also need transit — from students to seniors. The county has one of the highest unemployment rates in the states.
It’s ridiculous when you have the world’s biggest airport in your county,” Turner said. “When we had C-Tran, one of our heaviest lines was the one going to the airport. It was standing room only.”
MARTA’s Parker, who was treated as a regional hero during the LINK trip, said his team is doing all it can to improve the transit agency’s operations and reputation so that it will attract partners from throughout the region.
If it were up to Beach, the five major counties that were originally supposed to be part of MARTA — Fulton, DeKalb, Clayton, Cobb and Gwinnett — would be part of one system. The Georgia Regional Transportation Authority’s Xpress buses also need to be part of that regional transit agency..
“We will never be a world-class city with a fragmented transit system with agencies that don’t talk to each other. I want to get the five big counties to get together and play in the same sand box.,” said Beach, adding that more cooperation exists today than he’s ever seen. “I believe every one wants regional transit.”
Beach said that no matter what the new regional entity is called (he likes the ATL), it should be built around MARTA.
“When you look at MARTA, they have got millions of dollars of infrastructure already,” he said. “They have got 4,000 employees and a wealth of institutional knowledge. While there may be some in the region who have a negative perception of MARTA, MARTA is very well respected nationally.”
Beach said the attitude towards MARTA also has begun to change at the state and in the region.
“Keith Parker is very well respected in the Senate and the House at the legislature,” Beach said.
But Beach said that’s not enough.
“I believe the state needs to put skin in the game and to play a role,” he said. “I strongly believe the state needs to participate financially.”
Still Beach said that transit needs a champion at the legislature.
“We have got to have people who will step up and lead the cause, and I’m willing to do that at the state legislature because I think it is the right thing to do from a quality of life standpoint and from an economic development standpoint,” Beach said. “MARTA is going to be part of the solution.”
Parker said he is humbled by the sentiments others expressed and support he has received.
“We feel there is an opportunity in Clayton for mass transit,” Parker said. “And we stand ready to support them in any way possible.”
When it comes to the entire region, Parker said: “There is a feeling of optimism fueled by a feeling of collaboration. I’m very encouraged by folks from different political stripes who are interested in successful mass transit in our region.”
MARTA is doing what it can to make sure the transit system operates with a balanced budget, has ample reserves, maintains its buses and trains, is responsive to its customers, improves its service and takes advantages of new opportunities for its riders as well as the broader community.
“MARTA stands ready to work with regional leaders to meet their transportation goals,” Parker said. “We want to have transit work as a catalyst for economic development and sustainability; and it also can be a catalyst to attract and retain talent in our region.”