Lip service to transit does nothing

The support that Georgia’s elected leadership has so thoughtfully and bravely extended to transit expansion in recent months has turned out to be mere lip service.

Lip service accomplishes nothing. Even worse, it offers the illusion of progress without the reality of progress. And meanwhile, time passes. Competing regions — Dallas, Denver, Charlotte, Nashville — are laying rail and buying right of way and expanding transit networks, rearranging their transportation infrastructure to prepare themselves for a changing world, while we talk about talking about it.

The future has a funny way of happening whether you are prepared to take advantage of it or not. A region trapped in the obsessions of its past will not be prepared, but that seems to be our fate.

As you may recall, the 2016 legislative session began with House Speaker David Ralston seemingly embracing transit’s role in the future of this region, acknowledging that “major companies who seek out our state want reliable public transit options in metro Atlanta.” Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle likewise admitted what a few years ago would not have been said, that it’s a necessity to “improve and expand rail transit networks like MARTA.” Even MARTA’s new leadership was lauded by legislators of both parties for its success in cutting costs and improving efficiency.

But forgive me if I am less than impressed. Excuse me for noticing that vague and theoretical support for transit has had exactly the same effect as previous outright opposition. With the legislative session now in its waning days, what has been accomplished?

Nothing. No money to expand transit. No mechanism by which money to expand transit might be raised. No plan to create a mechanism to obtain the money to expand transit. The effective difference between past opposition to MARTA expansion and the current supposed support has turned out to be … nothing.

In their defense, Ralston, Cagle and others have suggested all along that they would follow local leadership on the issue, but local leadership has predictably faltered, squabbling among themselves. That’s because this is not a local problem. This is not a north Fulton or City of Atlanta or DeKalb County problem. It is not a Cobb or Gwinnett problem. It is a metro Atlanta problem, and in the absence of a decision-making entity at the regional level, the state is the only authority capable of taking action at the scale that it needs to happen.

But lip service is all we get. Nothing happened back when MARTA was everybody’s favorite whipping boy; nothing happens now.

In their frustration, MARTA proponents in Atlanta and DeKalb are proposing smaller-scale transit funding, without the need for regional partners. That’s regrettable, because it would make a later, regional approach more complicated to implement and integrate. But it is also understandable. They don’t want to wait for other jurisdictions to acknowledge that their increasingly urban nature will require urban-style services. From their perspective, piecemeal funding options and piecemeal expansion are better than no new funding or expansion.

I get that. But it’s still a heckuva way not to run a regional railroad.