Metro Atlanta transit talk gathers speed

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the recent Georgia Transportation Summit is the remarkable speed with which transit has taken a seat at the grownups’ table. And that was at a conference catering to engineers, developers, contractors and business leaders.

Yes, the Georgia Legislature received congratulations all around for raising taxes and passing the Transportation Funding Act of 2015 (House Bill 170). And, yes, the Department of Transportation rightfully kicked off the day-long conclave at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta by addressing road and bridge repairs that will be accelerated, thanks to about a billion dollars of new revenue each year.

But it also seemed like everywhere you turned, someone was hammering home the importance of public transportation in general, and MARTA in particular.

During a panel on infrastructure with about 700 attendees, commercial real estate developer David Allman said, “The next big piece after HB 170 is the expansion of MARTA. The perception of us not expanding MARTA is a huge negative in our competitiveness.”

Referencing anti-MARTA sentiment outside Atlanta and at the Gold Dome in years past, Allman added, “Those politicians who were against expanding MARTA will be shown to have been on the wrong side of history.”

On the same panel, Craig Lesser of the Pendleton Consulting Group said, “There’s a lot to be done with MARTA.” But he focused more on how our constant complaining about traffic congestion hurts the region.

When discussing Atlanta at international business meetings, Lesser said, “I don’t hear a lot about traffic. The great cities of the world all have traffic. We should be talking about solutions. Our big mistake is telling the world that our biggest problem is traffic. Transportation is the thing we ought to be touting. We’ve got a lot to brag about. The airport. Our freight (business). The port.”

Seth Millican, executive director of the Georgia Transportation Alliance, led off an afternoon session featuring MARTA CEO Keith Parker by saying he was excited that “we’re beginning to look at some multi-modal issues. We really haven’t had the opportunity or the political bandwidth to talk about (that) for quite a few years.”

Michael Paris, president and CEO of the Council for Quality Growth, took the microphone to introduce Parker, describing himself as “a Cobb (County) boy” and then proudly waved his MARTA Breeze card and urged others to flash theirs.

“I think I’ve ridden MARTA more in the past two years than I did in the past 20 years,” Paris said. “Why did I ride MARTA more in the past two years? Because it’s safe, it’s efficient, the trains run on time, and it goes where I want to go. We relocated our office right between two MARTA stations, and I think that’s the real tale to be told about economic development and what MARTA is doing today.”

Parker’s presentation touched on a number of issues – safety, three years of profitability, an upgraded bond rating, technology and even bringing more station bathrooms online. But he ended on his most ambitious note. He spoke about MARTA’s new goal of seeking a half-penny sales tax in Fulton and DeKalb counties to expand rail north to Alpharetta and east out I-20 to Stonecrest Mall, and implement light rail from Lindbergh station to Emory University.

That’s an estimated $8 billion in projects, with half the money coming from the sales tax hike and half from the federal government. It would require a complicated process involving the Legislature, but Parker said a referendum could be on the ballot as early as next year.

“It allows the voters in the region that already have MARTA to decide if they want to spend more money and expand with these three major transportation projects,” he said.

Three years ago, when Parker first took over a transit agency suffering from huge image problems, spotty service and fiscal mismanagement, such talk would have been considered lunacy.

Instead, Paris said, “I think most people in this room would be there to help and support that legislative agenda (for the half-penny tax). I know we at the Council for Quality Growth definitely will be. I think we have a really, really exciting future. MARTA has money in the bank, and that’s something we should all be very, very proud of.”

Talk about a sea change in perception.

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