Bill Torpy at Large: Those long bus rides to nowhere

A Cobb County bus makes its way along I-75. (AJC 2002 file photo / Andy Sharp)

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A Cobb County bus makes its way along I-75. (AJC 2002 file photo / Andy Sharp)

I see legislators are looking into making some sense of the hodgepodge of transit systems in metro Atlanta.

They say they’re going to study whether to consolidate or coordinate the various systems because it has become obvious that getting anywhere across the various service boundaries can be as fun as, well, a slow bus ride across town.

One of the pols heading up the effort is Sen. Steve Gooch, a Republican from Dahlonega, a mountain town which is a very long bus ride from MARTA's Five Points station. At a recent Senate committee meeting, Gooch said there's "too many moving parts" with all these agencies and "there has to be a savings."

At the heart of it all is MARTA, the old stalwart that suburbanites love to hate. Generations ago, voters in Cobb and Gwinnett counties spurned MARTA from coming to their counties. There were racial reasons in the previous votes, as well as fiscal — in essence, no one likes to spend money for someone else.

The prevailing wisdom in Cobb and Gwinnett was that paying sales tax to get MARTA was akin to dumping buckets of money down a manhole in downtown Atlanta.

Ultimately, Cobb and Gwinnett realized that buses aren’t all bad and created their own — albeit limited — systems. And Gov. Roy Barnes created the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority as a way to create some sort of a regional system, although that never really took off after he was voted out in the Great Republican Takeover of 2002. GRTA still runs buses but that’s about all.

My point is that it’s confusing and sometimes frustrating out there with all those different colored buses, so the Republican leadership is stepping up to do something.

Or at least they’re studying doing something, which I suppose is a start.

There are two reasons for this. One, traffic is really bad, which is not exactly a news flash. And two, the hot new sites for development — the places you’re most likely to see the really big construction cranes swinging — is near MARTA transit hubs.

Chuck Warbington, city manager of Lawrenceville and Gwinnett’s planning commission chairman, has long been a big proponent of expanding transit in Gwinnett. And now the county needs it even more than ever.

He pointed to last year’s announcement that NCR Corp. was moving its headquarters from Gwinnett to Midtown Atlanta, which is intown, has Georgia Tech nearby, and is in walking distance from a MARTA station.

“We use that as a poster child that we need to get on board,” said Warbington as he sat in his car one recent midafternoon, oozing along on I-85.

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Bill Torpy

Bill Torpy

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Bill Torpy

Gwinnett is a far different place from 1990, when residents voted decisively (70 percent) to reject paying a penny sales tax to bring MARTA within the borders. Gwinnett then was 353,000 residents, 89 percent of them white. Today there are 900,000 residents, 40 percent of them white, 28 percent black, 20 percent Hispanic and 11 percent Asian.

A survey last year by the Gwinnett Chamber said half the residents there would support paying for MARTA, although I’d wager that enthusiasm would drop precipitously in the privacy of a voting booth. Even the Democratic candidate for county chairman this year pushed for a county-owned system, such is the sorry image of MARTA in the county, even though the agency’s administration has improved greatly in recent years.

Warbington can see that viewpoint: “The issue in Gwinnett is protection of the money. The thought was, ‘It’s our money, so we can protect it.’”

Gwinnett officials, like legislators, are also undertaking their own study of transit to figure out where people want to go. Currently, most Gwinnett bus routes have Atlanta in mind, either heading downtown or to the Doraville MARTA rail station.

But it turns out that lots of Gwinnettians want to get to north Fulton, to places such as Sandy Springs, which has a MARTA stop, and to Roswell and Alpharetta, which don’t.

Interestingly, north Fulton officials have been cool to MARTA. Last year in Johns Creek — which is more a collection of nice homes than a city — members of the City Council voted that they wanted no part of a MARTA sales tax because their residents don’t take MARTA. Interestingly, Johns Creek doesn’t have a MARTA stop, although not for the lack of the MARTA folks trying.

Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle also wrote an op-ed saying that few people in his city ride MARTA and new rail stations that might come up his way would bring motorists from all over, crowding his roads.

State Sen. Brandon Beach, a Republican who is also from Alpharetta, stands on the other side of the issue, saying something must be done. Interestingly, he too was stuck in traffic (I-285 heading to Cobb) as we talked.

He is pushing to get more transit up to north Fulton in the next three years as a zillion-dollar, potentially maddening reconstruction of the I-285/Ga. 400 interchange takes place.

North Fulton residents might try it, he said, “And they might say, ‘This is not bad,’ ” he said.

Beach understands that everyone wants control and nobody likes paying for something they don’t use. “But if everyone got to the table and put their ego at the door, we could make progress,” he said.

I called Roy Barnes and the former Guv was — surprise! — stewing in traffic on the Downtown Connector.

Barnes, naturally, said his brainchild, GRTA, should run the show.

“There just has to be coordination of mass transit,” he said. “Atlanta is the largest metro area in the world without a coordinated mass transit system.”

His plan from nearly 20 years ago was that MARTA and other transit systems would all be part of a regional network overseen by GRTA. “The state needs to be intricately involved,” he said.

“I think we need to stop fearing it and start talking about it,” said Barnes.

There’s lots to discuss. MARTA is the system non-Atlanta loves to hate. And DeKalb and Fulton counties already pay 1-cent extra sales tax to run their system and they certainly don’t want their dollars heading elsewhere, just like Cobb and Gwinnett residents don’t want to pay taxes and see their money head downtown.

So let the talking begin.