Historic transit bill meets critics

It was a historic week for mass transit in Georgia. But many transit fans aren’t cheering.

After a long history refusing to fund the operations of mass transit from the state budget — even being morally opposed — Georgia House leaders last week offered to do just that. Standing with House Speaker David Ralston the day before he introduced a bill raising millions for transit operations, House Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Roberts said that he “personally had a change of heart.”

The reaction of some transit backers: Show me the money.

The plan described by the House leaders would, at least once, borrow $100 million to put toward transit investments. It would also impose a new fee on alternative-fuel vehicles that would generate up to $17 million a year for transit operations. (That assumes future legislators would stick to the plan and not divert the money for other uses.)

In Georgia, “transportation” at the state level has almost always meant “roads.” And indeed, this new transportation proposal would generate $1 billion a year for roads — about 10 times the sum that would go toward transit in the first year. In succeeding years, that proportion would change drastically: $1 billion for roads vs. $17 million on transit.

Even so, the transportation proposal is a first.

“We have never made any investment like that in transit before,” said Roberts, a Republican from Ocilla.

“This is a significant move,” agreed Rep. Calvin Smyre, the Democratic leader who has negotiated with House Republicans for more transit. He’s heard the dismay. The legislation can improve, he emphasized, saying that House Republicans have made big steps, and they will negotiate more.

No one pretends the proposal, introduced as House Bill 170, would come close to meeting the state's transit needs, as put forth by planners and advocates. A sampling of numbers for comparison:

  • The new Atlanta Streetcar, 2.7 miles round trip, cost about $100 million to build and more to run. It has wait times up to 15 minutes, which city leaders are trying to shorten.
  • Running MARTA rail up Ga. 400, just one of several MARTA expansion proposals, would cost $1.6 billion or more.
  • To build a fraction of the Beltline that the Streetcar could connect to, planners asked $602 million from the 2012 T-SPLOST referendum, which failed.
  • Cobb Community Transit costs about $19 million a year to run; passenger fares bring in $5.5 million. Cobb contends with incomplete service coverage and has had to cut back more in lean times.
  • Likewise, MARTA costs more than $800 million a year to run, of which fare revenue covers a fraction.

“I don’t think it’s a historic moment at all,” said Tom Weyandt, former comprehensive planning chief at the Atlanta Regional Commission and a transportation planner in metro Atlanta for four decades, now retired. The amount of money on offer, he said, “spread out over the total needs of the state both for capital and operating is really little more than a rounding error.”

“It’s historic in that it’s revisiting the past,” said Neill Herring, a lobbyist who has pushed for transit at the Capitol for two decades. He stressed he was speaking for himself; his clients were still figuring out the legislation.

Herring and others pointed out that not only would transit get far less money than roads, but the legal commitment in the bill for transit would also be much weaker than for roads.

Nothing would prevent the Legislature in subsequent years from taking that $17 million per year and putting it toward something else. Georgia legislators have a long record of diverting money they originally raised for one purpose to another purpose.

By contrast, the road money would be locked down for roads and bridges, by the state Constitution.

Regarding the transit funding stream, “It’s not dedicated so it’s not going to be an ongoing source of anything except money for the state general fund,” Herring said.

Currently, the state assesses a 4 percent sales tax on gas; of that, three percent goes to transportation, and one percent flows into the general fund, where it is used for all kinds of expenses. Transit advocates had hoped that the “fourth penny” would be devoted to transit. But the new transportation proposal eliminates the sales tax altogether and devotes nearly all of the new excise taxes to building and maintaining roads.

“The difference with the fourth penny is, you have enough money,” said Dubose Porter, the head of the state’s Democratic Party, who proposed the fourth penny for transit when he was a legislator. “Once again we’ve missed the opportunity to solve the gridlock in Atlanta.”

As to why Republicans would even care? Their Tea Party wing is on a tear over the plan, seeing it as a tax increase. To get it passed, the leaders need Democratic votes.

Be patient, Smyre said.

“We’ve come a long, long way,” he said, pointing again at the initial borrowing plan. “We’re going from zero to $100 million. It’s a philosophical and a political shift. And in my opinion when policy shifts funding shifts.” Moreover, he said, “I’m going to be steadfast and continue to work and try to make it better.”