Transit governance can be model for region
Even in the best of times, finding the right governance to address a problem in a fair and representative way is a tricky task.
It is just that exercise that the Atlanta Regional Transit Implementation Board has been wrestling with for the past several months.
What would be the most balanced way to oversee transit development in the 12-county Atlanta region, if and when a new funding source is passed.
The effort has been a valiant one. County commission chairs have been working with MARTA, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA), the Georgia Department of Transportation, the governor’s office and the Atlanta Regional Commission to design a governance board to implement a regional transit system.
Remember MARTA was supposed to have been a regional transit body, but only the city of Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb counties approved a one-cent sales tax nearly four decades ago to build out a rapid rail network with a connecting bus system.
As metro Atlanta has grown, the limits of a truncated transit system has become more pronounced. We’ve had a region that has continued to sprawl with an unhealthy dependence on single-occupancy vehicles to get from one place to another.
A few years ago, the ARC and the various transportation entities formed the Transit Planning Board, which developed a regional transit plan that mapped out a fully developed system with an extensive system of light rail, commuter rail, express buses and other transit modes to serve a 12-county region.
Amazingly, there was consensus among the urban, suburban and exurban elected leaders that we needed regional transit system.
Since then, the TPB has morphed into an implementation board (ARTIB), and the challenge has been to come up with a governance structure to oversee the development of transit in our region.
It’s a balancing act to make sure every one feels well represented. At a board meeting last week, a basic structure is taking shape.
After doing a thorough examination of other regional transit systems, metro Atlanta leaders have been modeling its governance after Chicago’s system. Under that model, there’s one over-arching transit authority which oversees the various transit agencies in the region. It is the one body that can go after federal transit dollars for the entire region.
As currently envisioned, the Atlanta version of the authority would include the chairs of the 12 counties currently with some kind of transit service as well as the mayor of Atlanta. The chairs of GRTA, GDOT and MARTA also would serve on the board.
There will be a pay-to-play provision, that in order ro have voting rights on the board, governments would have to be contributing funds to the regional transit pot.
The proposed structure calls for the governor to also have a voting member on the board. And if the state starts contributing funds for regional transit, it would have a greater voice on the board.
For the sake of fairness, the board also would have the option for representative voting based on a weighted vote to make sure the more populous urban counties are not outvoted by sparsely-populated exurban counties.
Any member can call for a weighted vote. A government with a population of 1 to 199,000 would get one weight; from 200,000 to 399,000 — two weights; 400,000 to 599,000 — three weights and 600,000 to 799,000 — four weights.
In such a vote, a resolution would have to have a simple majority of the board as well as the majority of a weighted vote.
The beauty of a true regional transit authority is that there could be real coordination between MARTA, Cobb County Transit, the Gwinnett Transit system, Clayton County transit and GRTA buses as it relates to fares, schedules, federal funding and economies of scale.
Ideally, as time goes on, there could be a way to collapse some of these various transit operators into one entity.
One idea that holds promise would be to merge MARTA and GRTA into one regional body. It also would be great if GDOT commuter rail initiatives could be incorporated into this new transit governance structure.
It’s been months of hard, agonizing work to create a transit body that would be able to offer services to the entire region; that would give voting power to the entities contributing to the transit system and that would be flexible enough to welcome more counties under its umbrella.
This whole exercise will be null and void if we can’t figure out a way to get new funds for transit in our region. What a shame it would be if all this hard work to find a harmonious transit solution among our region’s various governments and entities falters because we can’t figure out the funding piece.
Of course, the city of Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb counties must be given credit and reward for having passed the MARTA sales tax in 1971. In my own mind, I don’t know the fairest way to acknowledge their contribution while at the same time raising enough money in the region to implement a transit system.
(Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb have the penny sales tax for MARTA. State legislation for either a regional or statewide sales tax does not exempt those three jurisdictions, which means those areas would be paying two cents of sales tax for transportation).
Given cooperative attitude among our regional leaders at this moment in time, I believe there’s the spirit to find a balanced and fair solution for all involved. It is expected the ARTIB board will vote on the final governance structure at its August meeting.
What I do know is that the Transit Implementation Board can become a model of showing how a sensible governance in our state can work.