Regional transit unity on agenda

Legislation being drawn up at the Capitol could play a key role in determining the fate of the $6.14 billion transportation referendum scheduled for this summer.

Whether lawmakers’ efforts help or hurt, depends on who’s talking.

The legislation to knit together regional mass transit agencies is still in formation. No one knows just how much reorganization the General Assembly will vote to support — or if it will even vote.

But it’s important.

The metro Atlanta transportation referendum, one of 12 to be held in districts statewide, is touted by some as the most critical vote the region will see in decades. It would raise a 1 percent sales tax for up to 10 years in 10 counties to fund transportation projects within the region, in hopes of combating traffic congestion that is choking the region’s growth. Just over half the projects would be for mass transit, including new train or bus lines from MARTA to Cobb County and Emory University, new local bus service in Clayton County and regionwide commuter bus service.

Any cooperation between transit agencies, however tentative, would be a first step toward regional mass transit that would have been unthinkable here years ago, and it would lay the groundwork for possible future consolidation.

Sister legislation under development could also allow MARTA to run trains beyond the borders of Fulton and DeKalb counties for the first time since the agency’s formation. Some Fulton and DeKalb county taxpayer advocates say voters won’t support the summer transportation vote without regional mass transit legislation — while opponents say the legislation may undermine the vote.

If a regionwide transit system doesn’t at least get started this year, it could endanger the referendum, said Sandy Springs Mayor Eva Galambos.

“People are very angry about having to pay 2 cents,” a 1 percent sales tax for MARTA in Fulton and DeKalb County, on top of the proposed 10-county penny, Galambos said. While the Legislature may not be able to establish regionwide transit funding right away, she said, “there’s got to be a transition.”

On the other hand, the outward spread of mass transit is exactly what concerns Bob Ross, co-founder of the Fayette County Issues Tea Party, though he can see some useful efficiencies from consolidation. Other tea party members who testified at a meeting about the regional mass transit efforts raised the specter of Soviet Russia.

The referendum team thinks it will get enough votes for approval. “We believe voters will cast ballots based on the need to make the investments necessary to alleviate congestion and get our economy and our region moving again,” said Paul Bennecke, a leader of the referendum campaign. “If the Legislature does not address transit governance, the referendum is certainly alive and well.”

The one thing they can agree on: It’s a hot topic.

Supporters say metro Atlanta’s transportation needs are at crisis level and the region’s future hinges on the vote. Opponents, particularly tea party members, claim the $6.14 billion regional project list is loaded with the wrong kind of projects and that another tax represents a destructive burden. The tea party scored a surprise victory last summer when it derailed a proposal to move the date of the referendum to the general election, a move some believed would help the referendum.

For opponents and supporters on all sides, the topic is fraught with political land mines over city and suburban interests, and racial and social equality. Especially with new tea party interest in the issue, there has been some question about whether the Legislature might punt, as it did last year, and postpone or abandon the transit legislation.

Last year, House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta, a member of the panel that is drawing up the legislation, said lawmakers would pass a transit bill this year. More recently, Lindsey said he still believed that — but added, “I hope.”

“I don’t know that anybody has the answer about whether it’s a necessity to address it right now, or what the answer is,” said Sonny Deriso, chairman of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority. “I think the committee’s still scratching its head.”

House Speaker David Ralston earlier this week told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that top legislators were working on the plan, and that he was “optimistic” that one would emerge and pass this year with wide support.

Gov. Nathan Deal has convened a task force to draw up proposed legislation for him by Jan. 23. Under the broad outlines under discussion in recent weeks, GRTA could be “repurposed” into a new umbrella agency over the local transit agencies such as MARTA and Cobb Community Transit. It probably wouldn’t replace them altogether.

But the legislation may open the door to true consolidation down the line, speeding efforts already under way to spread the Breeze card throughout metro transit systems, and studying whether and how to rebrand all the agencies as one. It could track the operators’ productivity, and could even manage strategic planning and funding for future expansions.

A regional authority could coordinate cross-county transit lines, and applications for state and federal funds.

The critics come from all sides.

The big argument now is over who will get the controlling votes on the regional authority’s board: the state, which barely funds mass transit at all? Cities? Counties?

While some suburban conservatives fear transit being forced on them, some MARTA union workers fear privatization and losing benefits.

“It’s getting ready to be a knockdown drag-out,” said Benita West, who recently stepped down as head of the transit workers’ union. The union represents 3,000-plus local transit workers, and they are the only public employees here with collective bargaining rights, she said.

Other transportation issues are possibilities, too. One tea party announcement has called for a rally at the Capitol on Thursday, with one of the agenda items to simply repeal the referendum.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a key player in the referendum law, is one who thinks the regional transit legislation will eventually lead to one unified system. “I mean the goal should be complete interconnectivity,” Reed said. “But this year we think you’re going to see the groundwork laid — but we’re not prepared right now to move forward with a global rebranding effort,” renaming MARTA, GRTA Xpress, Gwinnett County Transit and others, he added. “And I don’t think citizens are in the mood for that.”

Staff writer Aaron Gould Sheinin contributed to this article.


Read Sunday’s AJC

Our legislative coverage continues Sunday. In addition to our exclusive poll on Georgians’ priorities for the session, we’ll examine the General Assembly’s kickoff Wild Hog Supper: Is it a quaint tradition — or a lobbyist trough? You’ll also find our guide to the players and issues likely to dominate the session. And citizen activists share their experiences on how you can get involved.