Prospect of regional transit plan raises ire

A panel that is drawing up plans for regional mass transit heard vivid testimony Friday from some metro Atlanta residents who fear it could damage their way of life, and from others who feared it may not be transformative enough.

The panel of lawmakers and local elected officials convened by Gov. Nathan Deal intends to propose a new state law next month that could start connecting metro Atlanta's patchwork of mass transit agencies. The panel has not yet proposed its bill, but rumors of what will be in it, and its counterproposals, have stirred emotions.

The new mass transit reorganization could help pave the way for next year's transportation referendum. Metro Atlanta voters in 10 counties will consider a $6.14 billion project list along with a 1 percent sales tax to fund it, and more than half of the list is mass transit. Some local elected officials have said they don't think it will pass unless voters know the transit projects will fall under a consolidated organization rather than just local governments.

According to Rep. Donna Sheldon, R-Dacula, who co-chairs the panel, the bill will most likely repurpose the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority as an umbrella over local agencies such as MARTA, Gwinnett County Transit and others. GRTA would not replace the local agencies or run their vehicles, but could act as a pass-through should the state ever decide to contribute funds, and could offer opportunities for consolidating some overlapping services if the local agencies desired.

Several legislators have said they see no interest at the Capitol this year for funding mass transit operations. In the meantime, disputes have cropped up over who would hold the power in such a setup -- the state or local governments.

On Friday, testimony regarding planning regional mass transit evoked images from wartime atrocity to Soviet oppression.

A tea party member, Susan Stanton, testified both on mass transit and on the "livable community" reshaping of cities that mass transit can spur. She likened them to Soviet Communist planned communities, with the government forcing a way of life on people. In contrast, transit advocates such as activist Chioke Perry charged opponents with "institutional racism" in hamstringing mass transit.

A number of witnesses asked the panel to make sure the proposal takes care of people in small towns, especially the elderly or disabled who can't drive.

Riverdale Mayor Evelyn Wynn Dixon, who was leading the panel, spoke harshly of private services now that charge high fees to transport such people, comparing it to "raping and pillaging."

One controversy under way is how the regional transit agency's board will be made up. Right now GRTA's board is entirely appointed by the governor, though that could change in the new law. But advocates for local government want to see a majority of the board's voting power vested in local governments, which mostly pick up the tab for mass transit in metro Atlanta.

Responding to news that the bill might be heading toward a state-controlled majority on the board, Atlanta Regional Commission Chairman Tad Leithead said that in that case, the ARC would oppose the bill. "And we don’t want to be in that position," Leithead said in an interview.

Sheldon did not attend Friday's meeting. The panel's co-chair, Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, said no decisions had been made about the board's makeup. "I want something we can pass first off," he acknowledged, but also something the public will approve of afterward -- taking Georgians' diverse attitudes into account.

An Atlanta regional committee led by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has suggested a bill in which voting power would be related to an area's financial contribution to mass transit and its population, according to ARC. Until other counties or the state start funding more transit, that could give majority control to Fulton and DeKalb counties because of how much the people there already pay in taxes and fares for MARTA.