Transportation bill gives transit and MARTA the short shrift, improvements needed in 2011
It’s just not good enough.
There’s a lot of self-congratulatory back patting going on in this town. After years of failed attempts, the Georgia legislature finally passed a bill that will allow 12 different regions in the state to pass a one-penny sales tax for their transportation needs.
But this bill is flawed. And patting ourselves on the back is premature at best.
The flaw? The bill falls short in helping the Atlanta region pay for its transit needs — arguably the greatest need that we have.
Then there’s the maliciousness of this bill against MARTA — the largest transit agency in the state and the one that is the backbone for all the other transit systems in the region.
What a disappointment House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones (R-Alpharetta) has turned out to be.
Thanks to her insistence, MARTA got screwed — plain and simple.
For more than three decades, MARTA has been saddled with a state imposed restriction that no other transit agency in the country has had to bear.
The City of Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb counties voted for MARTA — agreeing to tax themselves a one penny sales tax to build and operate the transit system.
But our state, which has inexplicably not provided ongoing financial support for MARTA, required that 50 percent of that sales tax go to capital expenses and 50 percent for operations. Remember MARTA is the largest transit agency in the country to receive no regular financial support for the state.
This year’s legislative session provided an opportunity to remove that restriction once and for all. But our Republican state leaders, in a most paternalistic manner, said that restriction would be lifted for just three years — giving MARTA an opportunity to prove itself to be financially responsible.
Unfortunately, the hole that MARTA is in is so deep that waiving that restriction for three years is window dressing at best.
But that wasn’t the most egregious legislative insult against MARTA.
Thanks to Rep. Jones, MARTA will be the only transit agency in the state that will not be eligible to use any of this new transportation sales tax collected in our region for its existing operations. The transportation sales tax could only be spent for operations for expanded MARTA service.
Think about it. MARTA is struggling with having to drastically cut its existing service because of the steep decline in sales tax revenues. It needs money now to pay for its current service. By saying the money can only go to expanded service is basically excluding MARTA — the transit backbone of our entire region — from receiving any significant portion of the new sales tax.
And that’s not all. The bill also mandates a new governance structure for MARTA. Once again, the legislature is overstepping its bounds. Remember the state is not a partner of MARTA. Yet the state believes it should play at the power table even though it does not pay into the system.
The legislature also decided to reconstitute MARTA’s board from 18 members to 11. And at least one of those with voting power will be the state’s commissioner of transportation, Vance Smith. Again, the state will be able to play without pay.
And that’s not fair.
The legislature also ignored the pain-staking work that’s been underway for years to develop a regional transit vision for the region.
That work has been conducted by one group during three incarnations — Transit Planning Board, which became the Transit Implementation Board, and is now the Regional Transit Committee of the Atlanta Regional Commission.
The diverse regional group approved Concept 3 — a comprehensive transit vision for our region. The same group also has been drafting a new governance structure for a regional transit agency that would help integrate the operations of MARTA with all the other transit agencies in the region.
How sad that the legislature did not let the Atlanta region call the shots on the governance of a new regional transit agency.
One of the greatest advocates for transit in the state legislature is Doug Stoner (D- Cobb) who explained to constituents why he voted against the transportation bill. For starters, Stoner believes that waiting until 2012 to put a plan before voters is too long.
“I also feel the legislation does not do enough to assist MARTA with its budget problems,” Stoner wrote. “To deal with future growth, supporting mass transit is as important, if not more important, than building more roads.” (Amen).
Even more distressing is how MARTA was put in a no-win corner during the heated negotiations on the transportation legislation.
At a critical point in the negotiations, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, wanted MARTA to help them lobby for the bill.
Basically, they were asking transit agency to help pass a bill that would singularly punish MARTA. And they were upset when MARTA General Manager Beverly Scott did not show up at the state capitol (her board had asked her not to) in the last ditch effort to get votes for the bill.
MARTA did not help its case when not one of its leaders went on the LINK trip to Phoenix — a safe place where they could have explained their position and could have worked to build stronger regional support for MARTA.
But all that is now history.
The real question is what we should do going forward.
For starters, we have the 2011 legislative session to fix this flawed bill. Second, the Regional Transit Committee can continue working on a fair governance structure for a metro-wide transit agency. The Atlanta Regional Commission should flex its muscle to get as much local control as possible.
Third, regional leaders need to come up with a project list that is transit friendly. In city after city, Atlanta leaders have been told that voters like transit and that a sales tax stands a better shot of getting passed if it includes investments in light rail (which has the most voter appeal), commuter rail, intra-city or intra-county buses as well as regional express buses.
If the bill has a chance in passing, at least half of the new sales tax should go to transit. And if the region wants support from two of its most populous counties — Fulton and DeKalb — it must make sure that MARTA is fairly treated and that the onerous rules imposed during this session are permanently removed.
Mayor Reed said, when talking about the transportation bill, that we should not let the perfect become the enemy of the good.
That is true.
But we also must not let the sort-of good become the enemy of the best — creating the healthiest, transit-friendly region that we can.