GOP transit plan for metro Atlanta continues to move down the track

The biggest shift in recent years among Georgia’s GOP lawmakers may be their attitude toward mass transit. And their train of thought on the subject is approaching its destination.

In 2010, Republicans’ angst about MARTA nearly derailed the bill that brought us the ill-fated T-SPLOST. Now their questions are more about how to deliver transit service across metro Atlanta, and who should oversee it.

That last bit about governance is what’s enthralled them lately. Both the state House and the Senate this year fielded study committees on the topic as the state moves slowly toward a more significant role in regional transit. Before legislators loosen the purse strings, they want to strengthen their control over how and where the money is spent.

Don’t expect a bill to settle the matter in the coming legislative session. But the outlines of a plan are taking shape.

First, the usual framing of this issue — “When will voters in (Cobb/Gwinnett/fill-in-the-blank county) decide to let MARTA in?” — is due for a serious update. While a major reason for Republicans’ warming to transit is the vast progress the transit agency has made under the leadership of Keith Parker and the current board, the irony is MARTA may not be the primary driver of transit expansion to the suburbs.

This owes in part to lawmakers’ continued belief suburbanites won’t embrace the MARTA brand. Many of the negative perceptions Parker and Co. have addressed, from low service levels to high crime rates, persist outside the agency’s three-county footprint. There’s a feeling it would be easier to sell these voters on transit under a different name than to educate them about MARTA’s improvements.

The feeling may be mutual. MARTA leadership has expressed its lack of interest in a “shotgun wedding” with the suburbs. That doesn’t mean MARTA wouldn’t go if asked and embraced. But it has enough on its plate, especially with Atlantans’ approval last month of a 0.5 percent sales tax to fund expansion in the city, that it won’t go begging for an invitation.

Taken together, these are good reasons to expect regional transit leadership to be housed elsewhere. As it happens, the state has a candidate waiting in the wings: the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, or GRTA.

GRTA already operates the Xpress commuter bus service from nine metro counties outside the MARTA service area. Its role in regional transit will only grow with the planned network of tolled express lanes, which will guarantee reliable trip times and give free access to transit buses.

The exact nature of GRTA’s role — running a regional network itself, merely coordinating among the existing transit agencies in the region, or something in between — is still up for discussion. That’s the biggest reason not to expect a bill in 2017. Legislators are more likely to hire a consultant to sketch out some options, including not only who would run what, but what needs to be built and how much money it would cost.

One possibility: MARTA continues to operate within Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton, while GRTA serves people commuting to (or from) those counties or between suburbs. Cobb and Gwinnett decide whether to continue operating their own services within their borders or to contract with GRTA or MARTA. All of it operates under a single system for paying fares and making transfers.

The structural questions lawmakers are wrestling with are important. But all commuters want are choices that are clear, reliable and affordable (both in user fees and taxes). That’s the ultimate destination.