Transit Governance Legislation for Atlanta Dead for 2012

Voters in each of Georgia’s 159 counties will head to the polls on July 31st to vote on whether to raise their sales tax 1% to fund transportation. The vote will be one of the bigger national transportation stories of 2012.

The sales tax is one part of the Transportation Investment Act that became law in 2011. For the Atlanta region, the bill also includes a Transit Governance Study Commission. The commission released a report that recommends combining the transportation agencies in the state of Georgia under one state agency.

While experts generally agree some sort of organization is necessary, the devil is in the details. Last Friday, Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, and Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla, introduced a blueprint for a regional state transit agency. However, the bill has numerous issues.

Ariel Hart of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has covered the issue extensively here and here. In summary:

In a blow to hopes for Atlanta regional mass transit, a blueprint for a regional transit agency was finally introduced in the General Assembly this week after more than a year of work — and immediately condemned Friday as so thorny that it probably will not come up for a vote this session.

The sponsor of Senate Bill 474, Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, said he had not taken a vote count and did not rule out hope. But he said that it was better to wait to get “perfect policy” and more support.

“We are going to keep on working on it,” he said, and “bring more people on board before we move forward. We’ll just keep on working even if it takes more than a year.”

The issue was how much control the state should have over a service that it hardly funds.

SB 474 would create a regional transit council composed mostly of mayors and county commissioners to oversee the patchwork of local transit systems. The council could help the systems coordinate overlapping services, making them less of a patchwork. And the whole effort held out hope that at some point in the future, the state might begin funding regional transit operations.

However, the council would be part of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, whose board would be appointed by the governor, the House speaker and the lieutenant governor. And that state board, even if the state paid nothing for transit, would hold veto power over the local officials.

An additional issue that concerns MARTA officials would remain: A restriction on spending MARTA’s own money would stay in place — unless MARTA gave up power to the state over federally funded capital projects.

Mayors and other officials in Fulton and DeKalb counties, where taxpayers currently pay the 1 percent MARTA sales tax, lobbied in vain last year for a regional mass transit bill. They said they doubted their voters would approve another transportation tax, the 10-year regional one, if there wasn’t a new regional system to spread around the financial burden they already have with MARTA.

Unhappy with the original bill, Democrats introduced an alternative bill.

Some local officials and residents of DeKalb and Fulton counties complained that the proposals seemed to give too much power to the state, as opposed to the region or local officials, when the state hardly funds mass transit. They said that was unfair to MARTA taxpayers, who are in DeKalb and Fulton.

As an alternative, Democrats this week introduced House Bill 1200, which would instead create metropolitan transit authorities. But they do not hold a majority of votes.

The bigger question is what does this mean for the Transportation referendum?

“This would have been counterproductive,” said Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta. He called some of the provisions in the bill “insanity,” particularly the terms for MARTA to control its own money.

But others said the failure to move any legislation would have a “significant” impact on voters’ willingness to vote for the referendum in Fulton and DeKalb counties, where the referendum needs its support to stay strongest. Enough to defeat the referendum entirely? “I don’t know,” said Sen. Fran Millar, a Republican who represents parts of DeKalb and Gwinnett counties. “Time will tell.”

Sandy Springs Mayor Eva Galambos had asked for regional transit governance. Now, “the fact that that bill didn’t go forward doesn’t bother me at all,” she said, citing that it didn’t do anything to ease the burden on Fulton and DeKalb. However, “the fact that nothing productive is going forward, that does bother me … I don’t think it helps the [referendum] passage.”

Most citizens do not realize that the law authorized a transit governance commission. Whether someone votes for or against the resolution will have more to do with the questionable project list and funding mechanism than an abstract governance problem.

However, the failure of politicians in the Atlanta region to agree on a board to oversee transit, never mind the type of transit itself, is discouraging. The state argues it should control the process because its Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA) is the only regional transportation agency. Unfortunately the state contributes very little in actual transit funds. The Metropolitan Atlanta Regional Transit Authority (MARTA) argues it should control transit because it operates the majority of service and better understands the funding and grant process. However, due to features it can control (high costs) and features it cannot (anti-urban and xenophobic feelings) it is not and will never be a regional agency. Both agencies make good points. Some sort of compromise is technically possible.

That is until you realize this is really a political fight. State leaders, mostly Republicans, are fighting with Fulton and DeKalb leaders, mostly Democrats over money and power. Delaying this vote until after the election is certainly the right move. But I am not convinced that the political gamesmanship will disappear in 2013. The metro region certainly needs transportation relief. But, the failure to enact transit governance legislation starts metro Atlanta on the wrong track.