Commuters frustrated by navigating metro Atlanta’s alphabet soup of transit systems could get some relief under plans the General Assembly could set in motion next year.
Committees in the state House and Senate are studying whether to consolidate local and regional transit agencies. Some – like CobbLinc and Gwinnett County Transit – serve single counties. Others – like MARTA – serve multiple counties. Still others – like the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority – provide service across much of the region.
Some lawmakers believe they can find efficiencies – and customers would get better service – if those agencies were combined or at least better-coordinated.
That would be fine with Custodio Muianga of Centerville. He would welcome consolidation or better coordination if it would improve transit service.
On Tuesday Muianga drove to a park-and-ride lot in Snellville, caught a GRTA express bus to Atlanta and then rode a shuttle to his job at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The trip took two hours each way.
“I can’t take four hours for transportation,” he said that evening at the park and ride lot on U.S. 78 near Snellville.
Legislators believe there are plenty of people like Muianga who would like to see better service.
“You go downtown today. You’ll see a GRTA bus, a MARTA bus, a Gwinnett Transit bus,” said state Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta. “How much are we confusing the public? Which bus are you supposed to ride?”
The study committees are the latest effort to get the fractious Atlanta region to pull in one direction when it comes to fixing its traffic problems. Those efforts have sometimes ended in disaster, like the failed regional TSPLOST campaign in 2012.
But there’s a tantalizing incentive for the transit agencies and their supporters to cooperate: the prospect that the consolidation effort could produce long-sought state funding of mass transit operations in Georgia.
“Just talking about it indicates a sea change,” said state Rep. Christian Coomer, R-Cartersville, chairman of the House Study Committee on Regional Transit Solutions.
The House committee and its Senate counterpart held their final meetings this week. They are expected to recommend hiring a consultant to study transit funding and consolidation.
Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, the chairman of the Senate committee, said the consultant could work with the existing agencies to move the consolidation process forward – and he believes it must move forward.
“There’s too many moving parts,” Gooch said at Monday’s Senate committee meeting. “There has to be savings. There has to be opportunities we haven’t discovered.”
It’s not the first time Georgia has tried to craft a regional transit system.
MARTA’s very name – Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority – reflects the intentions of the people who conceived it in the 1960s. But voters in Cobb and Gwinnett counties rejected MARTA and later developed their own transit systems.
‘MARTA’s so poorly run’
In 1999, then-Gov. Roy Barnes and the General Assembly created the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority to oversee a massive expansion of transit service across metro Atlanta. But the Republican who defeated Barnes in 2002, Gov. Sonny Perdue, scrapped those plans. Today, GRTA provides express bus service in 13 metro counties, but it never became a unifying regional agency.
Local transit officials say they work together on routes and other initiatives. But some acknowledge transferring from one system to another to travel across the region takes time and money.
“From a rider’s perspective, I definitely think (a regional system) would benefit the customer at the end of the day,” Vida Covington, general manager of Cobb County’s transit division, told the Senate committee this week.
Some say it makes sense for MARTA to operate transit service across metro Atlanta. Others say existing agencies should maintain their autonomy but improve coordination.
Stephanie Rideaux of Snellville isn’t so sure consolidation would be a good thing – especially if MARTA is the agency in charge.
“MARTA’s so poorly run,” she said.
Such perceptions have been common in Atlanta’s suburbs for decades. But attitudes about transit are changing. In Gwinnett, for example, changing demographics have led to calls for more transit options.
‘You’ll never build enough roads to keep up’
Political attitudes also are changing. Many Republicans have been staunch opponents of public funding for mass transit. But opposition has softened, thanks to economic development along rail lines and a growing consensus that new roads alone can’t solve Atlanta’s traffic hassles.
“You’ll never build enough roads to keep up with the growth,” Gooch said at Monday’s meeting.
Such sentiments have improved the prospect of state funding, which could encourage the various transit agencies to bridge their differences. This year the state provided $75 million for mass transit capital projects (like buses and transit stations). But with the exception of subsidies for GRTA commuter bus service, Georgia remains one of the few states that provides no regular funding for mass transit.
Among other things, the consultant would study whether state funding makes sense.
“Not to say that it’s going to happen,” Coomer said. “But (the study would ask) why would that be a benefit to the state?”
Of course, if the state pitches in money, it would want a say in how it’s spent, Coomer said. That gets back to the discussion of who ultimately should operate transit service across metro Atlanta.
If the General Assembly approves money for the study next year, Coomer expects the report to be completed by the end of 2017. Lawmakers would take up any recommendations in the 2018 legislative session.