Senate bill calls for statewide transit study in Georgia

Senate Bill 6 calls for a plan to develop a “seamless transportation network with dependable trip times for commuters.”
Senate Bill 6 calls for a plan to develop a “seamless transportation network with dependable trip times for commuters.”

Georgia would take a broad look at its mass transit needs in coming years under a bill introduced in the state Senate Wednesday.

Senate Bill 6 would create a 19-member Georgia Regional Transit Council, which would develop a statewide plan for a “seamless transportation network with dependable trip times for commuters.” The plan would explore topics like limited access highways, road congestion relief, safety enhancements and “plans for a future of transportation innovations,” according to the legislation.

The lofty language of the bill is the latest evidence that momentum is growing for a significant state investment in mass transit after decades of resistance. But the long lead time – the report isn’t due for at least two years, possibly three – suggests lawmakers aren’t eager to make any hasty decisions.

“We want to think big and think new,” Said Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, the bill’s sponsor. “We want to think, ‘What is the future of transportation?’”

For decades mass transit has been a polarizing political issue in Georgia. Cobb and Gwinnett counties refused to join MARTA and ultimately started their own local and express bus services. Georgia remains one of the few states that provides no regular funding for mass transit.

But with corporations like Mercedes-Benz and State Farm building major facilities along MARTA lines, political attitudes have begun to change. Lawmakers have signaled they’d consider investing in mass transit to help solve Atlanta’s traffic congestion and boost economic development.

Last month a Senate committee recommended that the state hire a consultant to study the particulars of a new regional transit model. The idea is to consolidate local agencies or at least improve coordination among them– with the prospect of state funding as an enticement.

Earlier this month House Speaker David Ralston proposed a commission to study state funding of mass transit.

Meanwhile, Atlanta voters recently approved plans to expand MARTA in the city. Fulton and DeKalb counties already are talking about another expansion.

Under SB 6, the proposed transit council would include three members each appointed by the leaders of the state Senate and House. The heads of the Georgia Department of Transportation, the State Road and Tollway Authority, MARTA and the Georgia Transportation Alliance also would be members.

The council would be rounded out by commission chairs from the five largest metro Atlanta counties and the chairs of metropolitan planning organizations from Augusta, Columbus, Macon, and Savannah.

The council’s report would not be due until December 2018, but the deadline could be extended a year with the permission of House and Senate leaders.