By Maggie Lee
Listen around official Atlanta at the beginning of 2018, and it seems that buses and rail might be one of the themes of the year.
Start with the state Legislature, which opens Monday, and the state House’s top-ranking lawmaker, Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge.
The state has a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars every year for roads and bridges, but what it spends on transit is so small as to be almost invisible. Money for buses and rail in Georgia comes pretty much from local sales taxes, the federal government and fares. That’s different from other states with big transit systems, which tend to kick in some state money.
But what might change that is the idea that transit equals economic growth.
Last year, Ralston named a transit governance and funding commission and charged it with studying the state’s transit needs and figuring out ways for the state to plan and provide for them. The reason? According to the first paragraph of the bill that set up the commission, the reason is economic development.
“[T]he State of Georgia needs a system of regional, integrated, and comprehensive mass transportation in order for metropolitan areas to thrive economically,” the bill begins.
So in a room full of reporters on Thursday for a pre-session press conference the first question for Ralston was: what’s the likelihood of a metro-wide transit plan with state funding going to the governor’s desk this year?
“I think it’s more likely than it’s been ever in the past. I think that we are to a point where it’s not whether there’s going to be a state role but what it will look like and the extent of the commitment. I think transit has to be a part of Georgia’s transportation planning,” Ralston said.
He didn’t speculate about what level of funding or what any governance plan would look like — the report from the transit council isn’t out yet. But he said its recommendations were being finalized and suspects they’ll be debated.
And that’s not the only piece of legislation about buses and rail that’s under discussion. Later this month, mayors from North and South Fulton have put on the agenda a decision on whether they want to ask the state Legislature and voters for up to a half-penny sales tax for new transit.
That would be a copy of what Atlanta’s already done: in 2016 year its voters approved a half-penny sales tax for new transit routes and construction.
New Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said at her Tuesday inauguration that the existence transit made an impact for generations in her family: her grandmother commuted via bus to a job at Lenox Square for 30 years, setting aside income with which her grandchildren could start life. Bottoms said she looks forward to working with state and regional partners to identify ways to expand transit throughout the metro.
Companies like NCR and State Farm made headlines when they set up locations near MARTA trains (near Midtown and Dunwoody, respectively.) When Amazon wrote the description that served as the starting gun for the race to host its second headquarters, the behemoth company named transit on site as one of its “core preferences.”
Emory didn’t say anything about transit in its official reasons for asking for annexation into the city of Atlanta — but joining the city makes it more feasible to set up a rail link from MARTA to the jobs at the school, its medical centers and the Centers for Disease Control.
Friday morning, a few hundred business and local government leaders met at the “State of MARTA” address, hosted by the Council for Quality Growth, a metro-region business group. One of the speakers was Phillip Washington, who runs Los Angeles County’s transit system. He offered several pieces of friendly advice about structure and procurement and routes. But he had to stop for applause on one of his points:
“Pursue a state funding initiative for public transportation,” Washington said, “and go big with it … maybe no sunset” on tax collections for transit.
After that speech, Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Hala Moddelmog said that her buzzwords for the year are going to be “generational transit expansion.”
She said the chamber wouldn’t just talk about congestion, but about transit access for people, about economic empowerment and what access to jobs, health care and education could mean for the market.
“Our mission is to make this a more prosperous and vibrant region and I can’t think of really anything else more than transit, frankly, that can help drive that vision,“ she said.
Former Atlanta Republican state Rep. Ed Lindsey, who’s now a partner at law and lobbying firm Dentons, said he thinks a particular business case is changing minds in Cobb County, which has long been resistant to major transit.
“I think that whether we get Amazon or not, I think the fact that Cobb County didn’t feel like they could even be in play for something like Amazon because they didn’t have transit is starting to create a sea change in the attitude in Cobb County, going ‘Maybe we need to start taking it seriously,’” said Lindsey.
But Lindsay also said he thinks Gwinnett will go big on transit before Cobb. And he thinks the Legislature will require a rework in transit governance in metro Atlanta before any serious funding.
“Right now, we have a tower of babel in metro Atlanta when it comes to transit, you have all these different entities, and you’re going to need eventually some kind of umbrella organization over it,” he said.
There is cooperation between MARTA and its much smaller peers, Cobb County Transit and Gwinnett County Transit. For example, it’s because MARTA carries the cost of the back-office technology that Breeze Cards can be used throughout the region.
Cobb and Gwinnett are both working on updating their comprehensive plans, a sort of look into the next few decades to figure out what kind of infrastructure their communities want and will need. Part of what should come out of the processes is an indication of what kind of appetite those communities have for upping their transit game or any greater degree of integration with MARTA.
That’s not to say metro Atlanta is about to become totally transit-oriented. Plenty of big employers aren’t on the train line or along busy bus routes. The Braves were happy to move to a new stadium that doesn’t have rail access.
And last year, state lawmakers put the kibosh on the idea of a DeKalb public referendum that would have meant more buses and maybe rail, paid for by an additional half-penny tax. The county was also pursuing (an eventually successful) penny sales tax dedicated in large part to road works. Pursuing both would have pushed the county’s sales tax rate up to 8.5 percent — too high to win enough support under the Gold Dome.
MARTA leaders, meanwhile, at the Friday morning breakfast, laid out a list of accomplishments done or underway: five years of operations in the black, $250 million in cash reserves, talks with Clayton about how to increase high-capacity service there, introducing mobile ticketing.
But as for the legislative session? MARTA Board Chair Robert Ashe said they appreciate the Georgia General Assembly’s focus on enhancing transit throughout the region.
“We hope they put new tools in the region’s tool kit so that communities will be able to implement solutions that work for their communities,” he said.
But he emphasized that the agency exists to serve its members and work with partners — that’s local governments.
“What we’ve learned over the past several years is transit is hard …even with the incredible support we’re getting from state leaders. So we have to follow the lead of our member jurisdictions and potential members, or potential partners whether they’re members or not, in deciding for themselves whether their communities are ready for transit,” he said.