Boon for toll lanes, not transit

Metro Atlanta commuters may see a whole new system of travel, thanks to the legislative session that just ended.

Car commuters, that is — not transit passengers.

A much anticipated transit plan failed. But a budget plan proposed by Gov. Nathan Deal and passed by both chambers seems to seal the deal for the largest transportation project in state history, and initiate an even larger program to build additional road capacity through toll lanes.

The budget directs the state Department of Transportation to take $300 million of gas tax money and put it all toward a nearly $1 billion toll lane project in Cobb and Cherokee counties. The project on I-75 and I-575 will build optional toll lanes alongside the highways, with a toll price rising and falling with congestion. Other funds, including borrowing backed by toll fees and up to $200 million in other gas tax money, may close the gap.

The gas taxes for that project would otherwise have been spent on road projects anywhere in the state.

House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, said it was not remarkable that legislators would devote so much road money to one suburban Atlanta project.

“The whole idea of motor fuel money is to relieve traffic needs across the state,” England said. “That’s a major corridor. ... So while it’s in one area, it benefits the whole state.”

In contrast, efforts to meld a metro Atlanta mass transit system out of a patchwork of local agencies went nowhere.

Legislators acknowledge that all these results could have implications for the transportation referendum to be held this summer. Exactly what implications, they were not entirely clear.

Two years of concerted legislative work on the regional mass transit issue — an effort headed by high-ranking legislators, on the orders of two governors — ended with a whimper. Negotiators already had recognized that their work was doomed by the time they introduced the bills, Senate Bill 474 and House Bill 1199, in February and conceded to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that they would not likely come up for a vote.

The thorny issue was whether the state could veto regional decisions, even though the state barely contributes funding to mass transit.

The Atlanta Regional Commission has been working on an alternate plan, and will attempt to see if it can be done without legislation. ARC officials and others still hope the Legislature will come through next year.

House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta, worked on the regional transit idea last year and this year. In a tense meeting near the end of last year’s session, as it became clear nothing would move then either, he tried to placate an audience of Atlanta-area mayors with an ill-fated promise. “I promised we’d get it passed,” Lindsey said last week, leaning outside the House chamber, smiling ruefully. “Sometimes you fall short of your goal.”

He and other legislators said it was important and they would try to keep talking.

Separately, a bill that some MARTA advocates this year hoped would lift restrictions on how much of its sales tax revenue the agency could spend on operations, House Bill 1052, failed in a close vote at the very last minute of the session. Fulton County Democrats would not accept a compromise that suspended the restrictions only for three more years, and shifted control of MARTA board appointments.

At the same time, the state continued its relatively new practice of funding operations of one metro Atlanta transit system, with $5 million for Xpress suburban commuter buses.