House speaker: It’s time to study statewide transit funding in Georgia

House Speaker David Ralston at the Georgia Chamber's Eggs & Issues breakfast. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

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House Speaker David Ralston at the Georgia Chamber's Eggs & Issues breakfast. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

House Speaker David Ralston said he will support legislation this year to create a new transit commission that would study whether to use state money to pay for trains, subways and bus systems - and come up with detailed recommendations for lawmakers to act upon.

Ralston announced the Georgia Commission on Transit Governance and Funding at the Georgia Chamber’s annual breakfast meeting, where he said the state needs to consider a deeper investment in mass transit.

“For our state to continue to lead the nation in transportation and logistics, we must do more to mitigate road congestion and move freight efficiently,” he said. “We have a remarkable opportunity to use transit for both of these goals.”

Both the House and Senate have launched separate study committees into transit funding, but the speaker's office said this commission would provide a more comprehensive look at whether the state should devote consistent resources to transit and what kind of state oversight is needed.

Ralston is among a growing number of Republicans, enticed by the burst of economic development along the rail lines linking Atlanta to its northern suburbs, who are embracing transit. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle has emerged as one of the most forceful supporters of transit funding, as has state Sen. Brandon Beach, the new chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.

But pro-transit advocates still long for a dedicated stream of statewide funding for the projects.

They come close in 2015, when $75 million in bonds for transit was used as a bargaining chip to earn Democratic support for a sweeping transportation bill. The new law, House Bill 170, provides about $900 million a year for road and bridge improvements, but it was criticized as an unnecessary tax hike by some conservative activists.

Still, the funding is a one-time commitment, and Georgia remains one of the few states that doesn’t provide regular funding for the vast majority of its transit operations. (The lone exception is the Xpress bus service by the Georgia Regional Transit Authority, which receives state subsidies.)

Ralston said his legislation shouldn’t be seen as a state takeover attempt of existing transit agencies – namely Atlanta’s MARTA subway line. There are transit systems in 122 Georgia counties, ranging from heavy rail to sporadic bus systems, and each has disparate needs.

Business boosters quickly embraced Ralston's proposal. Metro Atlanta Chamber chief executive Hala Moddelmog said the commission will "develop sustainable solutions to meet our growing state's overall transportation needs."

The commission is separate from a new panel of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee that's charged with studying transportation and ways to pay for it.

As for whether he backed a dedicated annual funding for transit, Ralston was noncommittal.

“I don’t know. I’ve said over the last few years there’s a future that we have to plan, and build in a component for transit,” he said, adding: “The amount of that, what it looks like – that’s why we’re going to create this commission to take a look at it.”