State has part in regional cooperation

The Transportation Investment Act (TIA) was defeated three years ago, as metro voters rejected the regional sales tax that would have built more than $8 billion of new projects.

While imperfect, its project list reflected a regional cooperation that resulted in a workable, politically viable compromise. Yet the process was, to a certain extent, its downfall — everyone could find an objectionable project.

As a result, regional cooperation took a hit and has shown a mixed record the past three years. “Snowpocalypse” in 2014 is another painful memory, due in no small part to a lack of preparation, and coordination among cities, counties, and state agencies.

The cityhood movement remained strong during 2015’s legislative session. The medium-term trend towards political fragmentation is continuing. The Braves’ surprise move to Cobb County caused another regional row. It is neither the first nor the last time that we will fight amongst ourselves over a common resource. As we look to California with memories of our own drought in 2007-2008, we can’t forget our water supply either.

However, there are also positive signs, many coming from the state level. There appears to be a political will to address transportation funding, one of our primary regional issues. House Bill 170 is expected to raise some $900 million annually statewide through a combination of taxes and fees. It gives transportation funding stability at a time when the U.S. Congress is still kicking that can down the road.

In 2014, the Georgia General Assembly passed legislation allowing Clayton County to vote on joining MARTA. The referendum passed widely, and limited bus service is already running. MARTA is now exploring future rail in Clayton and North Fulton.

The State Road and Tollway Authority (SRTA) and GDOT are working to add managed express lanes on I-75 south and north of Atlanta, as well as extending the existing express lanes along I-85 in Gwinnett County. The Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA) is overhauling its express bus service for the first time in a decade. It is increasing service hours on routes to downtown and midtown Atlanta, adding service to Perimeter Center, tightening its cooperation with MARTA on Breeze Card use, and even working with Gwinnett County Transit and SRTA to allow bus riders to earn free SRTA toll credits.

Each of these milestones has one very important commonality. The state has been essential in their fruition, either through recent legislation, or by creating the agencies and designating their regional role. The state’s role in furthering regional cooperation is critical because it sets the rules which can make cooperation easier or more difficult. The state sets planning requirements, builds and manages many major roads that connect our region, and can change political boundaries. The state establishes the rules that either incentivize or dis-incentivize regional cooperation.

With Georgia’s 2015 legislative session behind us, there are a few lessons for regional cooperation. The first is the continued role of the Legislature in creating frameworks within which regional cooperation can flourish. For instance, in the cityhood discussion, there needs to be a real weighing of the effects for regional cooperation when we create new cities. If the creation of more cities makes regional cooperation harder, as I suspect, will the General Assembly take other measures to support regional cooperation? The requirements for regional cooperation coordinated by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs seems a good place to start.

Second, state agencies offer a strong platform for projects binding the region together. The GDOT, GRTA, and SRTA and the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) can all operate in this way. ARC’s Livable Centers Initiative is a particularly successful tool. Moreover, ARC provides a forum for regional stakeholders to make decisions that affect our region’s state and federal funding allocations.

The challenge of the existing arrangement is the number of decision makers, each responsible to a different electorate of different board members and elected leaders. In these cases, dialogue forums can help fill the gap.

Breaking down silos matters because the greatest benefits lie where functions can be coordinated, not only across jurisdictions, but among functions. For instance, promoting transit-oriented development requires local government action. The benefits would be felt in stronger transit ridership, lower congestion, and lower pollution.

Since the political environment at the state and local levels will dictate the viability of regionalism in metro Atlanta, we need to engage with it. Letting your city, county, and state officials know that the strength of the entire region matters can help make it a priority. Otherwise, local and state issues can easily eclipse our regional health.

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Catherine Ross is director of the Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development at Georgia Tech.