Transportation referendum: To make progress, make a connection

Atlanta Forward / The Editorial Board's Opinion: For voters to say yes in 2012 to a transportation tax, we must shelve our county rivalries and see regionalism as the path to mobility.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, and the Atlanta region took a large step forward last week with the signing into law of hard-won legislation that grants regions the right to tax themselves to pay for transportation improvements.

Gov. Sonny Perdue’s signature on HB 277 gives the mobility-challenged Atlanta area a path toward making significant, but not all-encompassing, headway toward improving some of our transportation headaches.

Making that really happen will require hard thinking and political courage. Planners and far-flung local governments must now think and act as a cohesive region if we are to bring our dreams of congestion relief to fruition. We must shelve the rivalries and hyper-local vision that’s to be expected in a mega-area that spans 28 counties by the broadest measure.

Instead, we must see regionalism as the only real way to both improve transportation here and as the best avenue toward obtaining the most benefit from the precious tax dollars that will begin to flow our way if voters say yes in 2012, as we believe they must.

What will a truly regional transportation approach look like here? That’s the question that agencies ranging from MARTA and its peers to the Atlanta Regional Commission and county governments are required to address in coming months. In reality, that means figuring out how to blend or, at minimum, better coordinate the current mishmash of MARTA, GRTA and county transit systems.

At the center of this debate lies MARTA, with its iron cross of heavy rail lines that don’t stretch much beyond the I-285 Perimeter. What role will MARTA play as the metro area learns in coming months — as it must — to sing on the same page?

MARTA General Manager Beverly Scott, for her part, seems open to negotiating a new reality that could mean big changes for the transit agency funded by the city of Atlanta and the counties of DeKalb and Fulton.

During a recent breakfast meeting at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Scott said the area’s critical challenge is to create a unified, multicounty transit system. “I really don’t care what it’s called, I really don’t care who functions and operates it, let’s figure it out. Personally ... put everybody out of business, change the governance, knock off all the things to effectively streamline it,” she said.

Call that re-engineering in business parlance. That’s just what the far-ranging HB277 requires Atlanta to do as a region. The law calls for the creation of a Transit Governance Study Commission. The new body has only until year’s end to make a report to the governor and legislative leaders.

With the clock ticking rapidly toward this deadline, the study commission has a heavy agenda to work through. That shouldn’t stop it from thinking boldly about best practices for the region. Now’s not the time for incremental tinkering intended to protect political turf.

The cities that compete with Atlanta for jobs and the benefits they bring understand the R-word and have acted accordingly. That’s why there’s a Regional Transportation Authority in Chicago that oversees budgets and broad planning for the agencies that operate buses, subway lines and commuter trains traversing three states.

In Dallas, which has on average 98 fewer people per square mile than Atlanta, a regional transit agency oversees everything from commuter rail to shuttle buses and HOV lanes.

During the AJC’s transportation breakfast, we were encouraged that disparate constituencies voiced a similar vision of what needs to be done. Said MARTA’s Scott: “The issue of connecting transportation to jobs is a really important thing. We’re all talking about jobs and the recovery of our economy.”

We know what needs to be done. Now we must do it.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board

Atlanta Forward: We look at major issues Atlanta must address in order to move forward as the economy recovers.

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