Opinion: Moving forward on regional transit in metro Atlanta

092412 ATLANTA: A northbound MARTA train passes by bumper to bumper traffic on GA 400 North at the Glenridge Connector on Monday , Sept. 24, 2012. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

A few weeks ago, the Georgia General Assembly passed landmark legislation creating a regional transit authority in metro Atlanta. Skeptics believed it couldn’t be done, saying the issue was too complicated, our state and region too divided.

But I had faith that these obstacles could be overcome. Indeed, through the many months spent shepherding this bill through the state Legislature, I was greatly encouraged to find broad support across political and geographic lines. Just a few years ago, this would have been almost unthinkable.

So, what changed to bring about such a shift? Many factors are at play.

For one, there’s been a growing realization of the important role that transit plays in our economic competitiveness. Major companies, such as Mercedes-Benz, State Farm, and NCR, have chosen to locate near rail stations in metro Atlanta, and Amazon has made transit a major factor in its hunt for a second headquarters. Meanwhile, rival regions from Dallas to Denver have invested heavily in transit in recent years, threatening to erode one of Atlanta’s competitive advantages.

Also, MARTA’s reputation has vastly improved after many years of hard work and strong leadership. This is critical, given that MARTA is the backbone of the region’s transit network and will continue to play a major role in an expanded system.

In addition, people across the ideological spectrum understand that the Atlanta region’s traffic challenges can’t be solved only by building new roads. Improved transit options must be part of the mix.

And you can’t overlook the cultural change that’s taking place among young people, who are waiting longer than ever before to get their driver’s licenses, choosing to live near transit stations, and embracing ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft.

The legislation, which now awaits Gov. Deal’s signature, creates the Atlanta-region Transit Link Authority, or The ATL. The ATL is charged with coordinating existing and future transit service and developing a regional transit plan for a 13-county area – Cherokee, Clayton, Coweta, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Forsyth, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry, Paulding, and Rockdale counties.

Think of The ATL as a toolbox that gives local governments the ability to establish or expand transit service in ways that benefit their communities.

Like any meaningful legislation, the regional transit bill is complicated and holds the potential for significant change. Here are some important things to know about what this bill does – and doesn’t – mean for transit in the Atlanta region:

  • The legislation allows counties to seek voter approval for sales tax increases of up to 1 percent for up to 30 years to fund transit construction and operations. Any project list must be developed at the local level and approved by The ATL governing board and made available to voters prior to any referendum.
  • No transit expansion can be dictated from the regional level. Counties retain autonomy and must "opt in" to any project or funding mechanism. Parts of the region are eager for new transit options now, while others may not be ready for some time.
  • In a few years, all transit service in The ATL will carry unified branding to make the regional system easily identifiable and customer-friendly. Discussions will begin soon about what that means for existing brands such as MARTA, CobbLINC, and Gwinnett County Transit.
  • MARTA will remain responsible for operating the region's heavy rail system, including any new heavy rail projects that are authorized by The ATL.

The passage of regional transit legislation wasn’t easy and required tremendous leadership on the part of many of my fellow legislators and other regional leaders, including House Speaker David Ralston and my colleagues on the House Commission on Transit Governance and Funding as well as my partners in the Senate, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Transportation Chairman Brandon Beach.

But in many ways, the hard work starts now.

We must develop a smart, comprehensive regional transit plan, while at the same time being wise stewards of public funds.

And the creation of a truly regional transit network will require difficult decisions by elected officials and residents alike. Counties must choose whether to pursue an expansion and decide on a project list, while voters will be asked to open their wallets to fund new service options.

This is an historic moment for metro Atlanta. I firmly believe that this legislation will unlock the region’s potential, improving mobility and quality of life while preserving our economic strength.

State Rep. Kevin Tanner, a Republican from Dawsonville, is chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

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