Opinion: Moving into higher gear on transportation, transit fixes

Metro Atlanta’s transportation problems have long seemed to mirror traffic here at rush hour(s). Anybody on the roads knows we have issues, and possible fixes can seem even farther away than our final destinations after slow, aggravating daily commutes.

It’s heartening that there are some substantial fixes now in the works and others on the planning board that should reduce congestion here over time.

Even more encouraging for the future is that progress is perhaps cranking into a higher gear toward making a reality of the next big phases of transportation improvements in this region and state.

We encourage any productive collaboration and cooperation among the agencies that have a role in helping metro Atlanta move. We urge all involved to charge ahead with all possible speed.A growing, prosperous region needs an infrastructure to match.

Among the notable moves on the mobility front was 2015’s passage of a gas tax increase that fuels an additional $750 to $1 billion annually for road and bridge improvements. As the Atlanta Regional Commission noted in an update last week, that resulted in “effectively doubling the state’s transportation budget.” As a result of lawmakers’ courage in the face of anti-tax opposition, work is now underway on a variety of road improvements across the region and state.

Progress also continues to extend variable-rate highway toll lanes intended to provide congestion relief. The latest toll project, the I-75 South Metro Express Lanes, opened in January on a 12-mile stretch in Henry County.

A sales tax win last November also creates a stable new funding venue for transportation and transit improvements in the City of Atlanta. Voters in Fulton County also approved their own tax hike last fall for road fixes. Fulton commissioners also voted to help pay for an ARC transit study. In Clayton County, MARTA buses have been rolling since shortly after voters there approved a sales tax measure.

These all point to an increasing commonality of purpose among agencies and jurisdictions. That makes great sense in an area where many people cross boundaries each day in their travels. In other words, there’s increasing recognition that we’re all in this together.

One big factor that’s still an outlier at this point is what’s next for state government in supporting the next phases of transportation improvements. Encouraging words were heard from the Gold Dome during a kickoff hearing late last month of the new House Commission on Transit Governance and Funding.

In opening remarks, House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, spoke frankly and refreshingly about what should lie ahead. “Taking bold action requires more than words, it requires action,” he said.

“There’s a great deal of data that tells us that transit must play a role in our transportation planning in the years ahead,” said Ralston, noting that millennials “place a premium on having the option to take a bus, a train or a bike to work.” Ditto for many of today’s big job creators, we’d add.

Ralston assigned the work of “undertaking a “thorough discussion and assessment of transit in Georgia. I further charge this commission to work with stakeholders to recommend ways to integrate transit into this state’s transportation future.”

And toward a big point, the Speaker said that, in addition to facilitating new or modified inter-agency agreements, “your recommendations may also include reasonable state funding to support our transit systems, subject to appropriate controls.”

That’s an exciting acknowledgement of a big missing piece. Direct, ongoing state fiscal support for transit would be a long-overdue force multiplier for congestion relief in Georgia. It should come to pass soonest, we believe.

And in words aimed at staving off possible turf squabbles, Ralston added that, “to be clear, I am not of the opinion that the state must wholly control or take over a transit system in order to provide funding. This is not a zero-sum environment. Rather, I encourage you to work with transit operators and local governments to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes.”

He’s right. It’s not a zero-sum play. Working collaboratively among agencies and entities will likely yield the best results for taxpayers and commuters alike.

We urge the committee to speedily get after its important work. Done well and with foresight, innovation and courage, Georgia and all its cities stand to greatly benefit from the result.