Transportation Roundtable job is much harder because the state doesn’t fund transit

It all boils down to this.

All the hand-wringing that’s going on this week with the Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable can be traced back to one player — the State of Georgia.

The Roundtable has until Oct. 15 to submit its final list of projects that will be included on a penny sales tax referendum that will be presented to voters next year. The tax is estimated to generate $7.2 billion over 10 years with 15 percent of that will go directly to local governments, leaving $6.1 billion to be divvied up by the Roundtable.

The leaders in the 10-county region are agonizing over whether it should add $80 million (in addition to the current $100 million) to fully fund the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority’s Xpress buses over the next 10 years by taking away from four other transit investments.

The Roundtable will meet on Oct. 11 to try to find consensus on the four toughest amendments that must be addressed before the Oct. 15 deadline.

Update: the Roundtable met on Tuesday, Oct. 11 when it came to consensus on the four amendments. Read David Pendered’s story for more about the meeting.

An amendment proposed by Henry County Chair B.J. Mathis would remove that $80 million from MARTA’s allocation to keep its system in a state of good repair, from the Atlanta BeltLine streetcar project, from the Clifton Corridor transit line and from Cobb County’s light rail line.

Also on the table is another amendment proposed by Douglas County Chair Tom Wortham to shift $34.5 million from MARTA’s state of good repair to go to fund GRTA’s Xpress buses.

A third amendment, submitted by DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis, would shift $297 million of funding along Georgia 400 towards expanding MARTA east line along I-20 corridor.

The fourth amendment was proposed by Clayton County Chair Eldrin Bell to invest $350 million in the Atlanta to Griffin commuter rail line, and the proposal has called for reducing all other transit projects by 10 percent to pay for commuter rail.

Watching this agonizing tug-of-war between the various jurisdictions chipping away at proposed transit projects is painful.

And while regional leaders are tempted to turn on each other, the real culprit here is the state and its lack of funding for transit, in particular, and transportation in general.

GRTA is a state agency that was created to be a vehicle for the state to become a regional player in transit. But GRTA has been lobbying to get $180 million from the metro Atlanta tax to fully fund its system rather than rely on any financial support from the state to pay for the regional bus system.

Earlier in the Roundtable process, a dramatic moment occurred when Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Roundtable Chairman Bucky Johnson took advantage of a break in a meeting to go see Gov. Nathan Deal. At that meeting, Deal assured Reed and Johnson that he would help the state invest $80 million in GRTA over the next 10 years.

That’s how the GRTA allocation in the project list was reduced from $180 million to $100 million.

Now GRTA backers are trying to restore that $80 million because they say the governor can not make a financial commitment to support the regional bus system because it would be up to the legislature.

Mathis actually called on state Sen. Doug Stoner (D-Cobb) to describe the appetite for GRTA funding in the legislature.

“The state has not shown a commitment at this time,” Stoner said. But Stoner added that he did not believe that funding for GRTA should come out of MARTA’s state of good repair, which is essential to having a regional transit system.

Atlanta Mayor Reed said that when the economy recovers, the state will be in a much better financial position than local governments that have a ceiling on what they can collect on property taxes. And he continued to believe the state would rise to the occasion to invest in a regional transit system.

“The governor was willing to try to get it figured out,” Reed said.

The mayor also added that on Wednesday, Oct. 5, the state had “a wonderful meeting around transit governance” — an effort that would create an umbrella entity to oversee all the transit operations in the Atlanta region.

“I think the transit governance conversation really is the key to getting the state interested in long-term funding,” Reed said.

Speaking about the entire Roundtable experience, Reed said: “I never expected this to be an easy process. I focus more on results than the journey.”

For decades, metro Atlanta has been under-investing in MARTA — the region’s largest transit system by far. Most of that can be attributed to two facts — the lack of state funding and the fact that only two counties (Fulton and DeKalb) provide financial support for the system.

Until the state becomes a significant player in transit funding, the region’s leaders will continue fighting over the limited dollars that exist.

And while it would be easy to get frustrated by the situation, MARTA General Manager Beverly Scott has managed to remain hopeful that the process will lead to a favorable outcome for the transit backbone of the region.

“There’s a solution,” Scott said. “We have come too far to have it fall apart now.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

17 replies
  1. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    “It all boils down to this….All the hand-wringing that’s going on this week with the Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable can be traced back to one player — the State of Georgia.”

    Yep. That pretty much sums it up as the state has pretty much shirked its responsibility to fund or effectively manage transit during what has been a period of very explosive population growth over the past three decades.

    But don’t despair transit advocates as the state has also been increasingly shirking its responsibility to manage roads and transportation in general over the last several years.

    We seem to be at a point in this state’s history where the state government seems to have little, if any, interest in making meaningful investments in critically-needed infrastructure upgrades and improvements.Report

    Reply
  2. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    ““I think the transit governance conversation really is the key to getting the state interested in long-term funding,” Reed said.”

    Just the fact that the state still isn’t interested in long-term transit (or transportation) funding after the population of the Atlanta Region has virtually doubled and the population of the state has increased by close to 70 percent in the last twenty years with nearly six million people in the Atlanta Region being dependent on a transportation infrastructure that was only meant to handle three million is quite remarkable and somewhat very disturbing when you think of it.

    If three million more people being added to a region that already struggled with congestion with the three million people it already had doesn’t get the state “interested” in long-term funding then I don’t know what will.Report

    Reply
  3. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    Ironically, the debacle with the implementation of HOT lanes on I-85 through Gwinnett last week has had the unintended effect of helping to reduce support for the T-SPLOST from the barely middle-of-the-road level that it already was struggling to stay at in one of key counties needed to past it in Gwinnett.

    People are understandably reluctant to support voting for their taxes to be increased if they think that the only thing that they are going to get in return are projects that will increase the miserable congestion that they must deal with daily and turn it into total gridlock like that of the I-85 HOT lanes.Report

    Reply
  4. writes_of_weigh says:

    Poor (Georgia) taxpayers……… Victims of inept, office holding, robber barons yesteryear and this.

    Didja ever wonder why, with Georgia supposedly at the crossroads of (both passenger and freight) commerce, why there was so little public passenger rail service, available to the masses? Amtrak…..

    your governments solution to inter-city(mostly nationwide) passenger rail provisioning(service?….no)

    and a sometimes commuter rail provider in certain markets, had opportunities in the past to at least create a passenger rail crossroads in Atlanta(but botched that repeatedly) now has its hand out to the taxpayers to provide a basic depot in Atlanta(Brookwood/Peachtree station has reportedly been nearly vibrated into oblivion by passing freight trains operated by a company who was encumbered by law to provide a terminal for Amtrak service along it’s (Crescent) route and others so contractually obligated).

    This same freight railroad(subsidiary Central of Georgia) was once encumbered to also operate a passenger route between Atlanta and (Lovejoy)-Savannah and between Albany and Columbus, and with presumed ability/authority to operate passenger trains to Athens, Macon, Chattanooga, Dothan and Birmingham. This ability/authority was lawyered into being by no less than a future(Norfolk) Southern Railway and Amtrak president, W. Graham Claytor, Jr..

    Report

    Reply
  5. Burroughston Broch says:

    If the State were to fund transit, it would demand a strong voice in the process. That being repugnant to Metro Atlanta, the State doesn’t fund transit.

    To be fair, transit might only make sense in Metro Atlanta, so don’t expect a farmer in Vidalia to be interested in funding it.Report

    Reply
    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

      @Burroughston Broch

      “If the State were to fund transit, it would demand a strong voice in the process.”

      But that’s the thing, after watching the Atlanta Region add nearly four million people over the last thirty years, which is equivalent to the population of the ENTIRE Seattle Region, the State of Georgia should have a strong COMPETENT and CAPABLE voice in the process as the State should be very understanding of the overall infrastructure (transportation, education, water, etc) needs of its largest population and employment center and REVENUE PRODUCER.Report

      Reply
    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

      @Burroughston Broch

      “If the State were to fund transit, it would demand a strong voice in the process.”

      But that’s the thing, after watching the Atlanta Region add nearly four million people over the last thirty years, which is equivalent to the population of the ENTIRE Seattle Region, the State of Georgia should have a strong COMPETENT and CAPABLE voice in the process as the State should be very understanding and imtimately familiar of the overall infrastructure (transportation, education, water, etc) needs of its largest population center, employment center and REVENUE PRODUCER.Report

      Reply
    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

      @Burroughston Broch

      “If the State were to fund transit, it would demand a strong voice in the process.”

      But that’s the thing, after watching the Atlanta Region add nearly four million people over the last thirty years, which is equivalent to the population of the ENTIRE Seattle Region, the State of Georgia should have a strong COMPETENT and CAPABLE voice in the process as the State should be very understanding and imtimately familiar of the overall infrastructure (transportation, education, water, etc) needs of its largest population center, employment center and REVENUE PRODUCER.Report

      Reply
    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

      @Burroughston Broch

      “If the State were to fund transit, it would demand a strong voice in the process.”

      But that’s the thing, after watching the Atlanta Region add nearly four million people over the last thirty years, which is equivalent to the population of the ENTIRE Seattle Region, the State of Georgia should have a strong COMPETENT and CAPABLE voice in the process as the State should be very understanding and imtimately familiar of the overall infrastructure (transportation, education, water, etc) needs of its largest population center, employment center and REVENUE PRODUCER.Report

      Reply
    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

      @Burroughston Broch

      “That being repugnant to Metro Atlanta, the State doesn’t fund transit.”

      Actually, the State already DOES fund transit…The State funds FREIGHT rail transit, giving heavy subsidies to freight rail companies at the behest of the freight rail and agricultural lobbies.

      There’s even serious talk of the State increasing that already strong funding by upgrading existing freight rail lines between Atlanta and Savannah to accommodate high-speed freight rail trains to and from the fast-growing Port of Savannah.Report

      Reply
    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

      @Burroughston Broch

      “That being repugnant to Metro Atlanta, the State doesn’t fund transit.”

      Your statement also goes to the point that the State and Metro Atlanta should see themselves as partners in the critical business of keeping people and commerce moving through the transportation network, instead of seeing each other as adversarial entities competing against each other for power.Report

      Reply
    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

      @Burroughston Broch

      “To be fair, transit might only make sense in Metro Atlanta, so don’t expect a farmer in Vidalia to be interested in funding it.”

      That’s the mistaken line of thought that many are under in this process as transit makes sense in places around the state other than just Metro Atlanta.

      Second-tier principal cities like Columbus (home to Fort Benning and the headquarters of Aflac Insurance), Savannah (major tourist draw), Augusta (home to a mega-event in The Masters’ golf tournament), Macon (home to Mercer University and Macon State College), etc, and college towns with large populations of college-aged students who may not have full access to personal vehicles like Carrollton (University of West Georgia), Valdosta (home to Valdosta State University), Statesboro (Georgia Southern University), Americus (Georgia Southwestern State University), Millegdeville (Georgia College and State University), Albany (Darter College and Albany State University), Rome (Berry College and Shorter College), etc, all have major reasons why transit makes sense outside of just Metro Atlanta.Report

      Reply
      • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

        @Burroughston Broch

        Nearly every other state in the union funds passenger transit other than Georgia.

        Why should the ninth-largest state in the union with a population of just under 10 million which is home to the nation’s ninth-largest metro area that has a population of just under six million people and has seen such crushing population growth that its infrastructure is almost completely crippled at times, be any different from states with a fraction of the population that fund passenger rail transit?Report

        Reply
        • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

          @Burroughston Broch

          Nearly every other state in the union funds passenger transit other than Georgia.

          Why should the ninth-largest state in the union with a population of just under 10 million which is home to the nation’s ninth-largest metro area that has a population of just under six million people and has seen such crushing population growth that its infrastructure is almost completely crippled at times, be any different from states with a fraction of the population that fund passenger transit?Report

          Reply
  6. RobertGrunwald says:

    Enough is Enough will some please tell the The people who run this get there head of ground so we live in great city instead some backwaryd place that has no come sense .Report

    Reply
  7. writes_of_weigh says:

    Additionally…….Norfolk Southern will gladly take taxpayer dollars to buy a moribund route between Macon and Atlanta (price $ two hundred million dollars(give or take)) which it is obligated to operate commuter or inter-city rail upon by virtue of the route being part of the initial Amtrak founding railroad group(which ……curiously ……Southern Railway did not join until 1979.) I guess the legal obligations to operate the Nancy Hanks and City of Miami (Central of Georgia Ry) routes which Amtrak should have been “sheparding” in the public interest….just vaporized down the “glidepath to financial viability.” Report

    Reply
  8. writes_of_weigh says:

    Further……the state owned right-of-way from downtown to Cumberland Mall and on to Marietta, KSU, Cartersville, Dalton and Ringgold(Chattanooga) which is currently leased to CSX for freight operations, might just have to widened for additional rail transit, despite having been recently upgraded(in parts)

    with extended sidings(creating, essentially, double track) to accomodate increased (CSX) network fluidity. State owned means, yes, that the taxpayers in the state of Georgia, own it. This, if utilized/managed properly, should trmendously lower the cost of serving Cobb and additional

    northern counties along rhe route, with transit/commuter rail/inter-city rail/mag-lev….etc.Report

    Reply

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