Opinion: Despite MARTA’s Parker’s exit, state transit funding can stay on track

The news this past week that MARTA’s chief executive is leaving for another job came at what could be seen as the best of times and the worst of times.

The best, because Keith Parker spent the past 57 months turning what had been a $50 million structural budget deficit at the state’s largest transit agency into an annual surplus. He leaves MARTA in remarkably better shape than he found it. The worst, because his near-miracle was only just beginning to open the door to what transit advocates have long sought: state financial support.

A House study committee is probing ways the state might put some monetary muscle behind transit. The sense around the Capitol is it’s a serious effort. The loss of Parker, who will take over as CEO of Goodwill of North Georgia, has some fretting that effort could be in peril.

They needn’t fret too much. While Parker was personally responsible for much of Republican legislators’ newfound goodwill toward MARTA, his departure shouldn’t derail the right kind of transit funding. Let me explain.

Although Georgia has more than 100 transit agencies, this debate has always revolved around the biggest, MARTA, and its often rocky relationship with Republicans. And it’s gone something like this: If the state is going to support MARTA, shouldn’t it have more say in MARTA’s governance?

Lately, the debate has been about whether MARTA and other transit agencies — primarily the ones serving Cobb and Gwinnett — should merge, or perhaps move under a state agency such as the Georgia Regional Transit Authority. But there’s a better option that avoids that political and administrative messiness.

Flash back to 2015, when the General Assembly added nearly $1 billion in annual funding for roads and bridges. It also, for the first time, put state money into mass transit other than its Xpress commuter buses. The Go Transit bond program funded $75 million in competitive grants. Six local transit agencies, plus MARTA, the University of Georgia and the Atlanta Regional Commission, received funds.

If the state is to put more money toward transit, that’s the model to follow.

First, we’re talking about spending on infrastructure, as the state already does for roads and airports, rather than subsidizing transit operations.

And if the state stays out of operations, the governance question becomes a lot less thorny. The state doesn’t need greater oversight of MARTA or any other transit agency if it’s not subsidizing operations. Its governance can be limited to deciding which infrastructure projects it’ll pay for.

That also means metro Atlanta doesn’t have to broach the subject of MARTA expanding into Cobb or Gwinnett just to secure state funding. If, for example, MARTA and Cobb want state money for a line connecting the Perimeter area to Cumberland (home of the new Braves stadium), they can strike an intergovernmental agreement about how to run it and make their case for state infrastructure funding — like anyone else.

Other cross-border projects such as high-speed rail between Atlanta and Athens, or Atlanta to Macon to Savannah, should also be legally simpler — even if the financial case for building them must still be made. And, yes, if Parker’s successor at MARTA squanders the Legislature’s trust, the state doesn’t have to give the agency any money. There are other needs elsewhere.

There’s been a real shift among GOP legislators toward transit. The question has always been how to do it in a prudent way. It turns out, they’ve already been down that line.