Time to Bite Bullet on Transit
June 13, 2005
Nearly seven years ago, a high-powered panel of metro Atlanta business and government leaders called for creation of a single agency with the power to plan, fund and implement a regional transit system.
Little has transpired since 1998 to support or expand public transit in the region, despite the creation of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority. Quite the opposite.
MARTA, which carries about 95 percent of all transit riders in the region, is cutting service while raising some of its fares when just the reverse should be taking place.
And it's not just MARTA. The limited new bus services in the suburbs face the sunset of federal funds for operations. And there's still no plan or suggestion on how to generate operating funds for the region's public transit.
Last year, the Atlanta Regional Commission commissioned a "regional transit institutional analysis" to tackle how we plan, fund and implement public transportation in metro Atlanta.
Unfortunately, leaders involved in this analysis are talking about creating a "regional transit authority" to plan public transportation. And while this new planning authority could be affiliated with either GRTA or the Atlanta Regional Commission, leaders are talking about creating an independent board to oversee regional transit plans.
"This region needs another planning agency like it needs another hole in the head," says Harry West, the ARC's executive director for nearly 28 years before he stepped down five years ago. "This is not a planning problem. It is an implementation and financing problem. Talking about planning is easy. Getting the plans done is the hard part."
How much time we've lost. And we still are no closer to where we need to be.
The leaders working on the transit institutional study want to separate transit planning from operations, they don't want to talk about funding, and they accept that there will be a multitude of transit operators serving the region.
"If we take on the funding issue, we are looking for disaster up front," ARC Chairman Sam Olens told the group last week.
And because all this is so controversial, Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell says, "We need to take baby steps."
Baby steps, when the region is headed for congestion paralysis?
"We need to be jumping over oceans, not taking baby steps," says Catherine Ross, who served as GRTA's first executive director until 2003 and is now director of the Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development at Georgia Tech. "The kind of growth we are looking at requires a much quicker, more efficient and expedient response for transit than we have put forward."
When GRTA was established, the idea was that it would be the regional transit agency with powers to plan, operate, manage, fund, exercise eminent domain and oversee land use. Today, GRTA leaders say they have no desire to be the region's transit operator and are willing to turn over transit planning to another agency. It raises the question of why we needed GRTA in the first place, but that's another column.
So now consultants have presented different scenarios for how public transit would be offered in the region. The "strong consolidation" scenario calls for MARTA to divest itself of bus service and focus on rail services, for GRTA to expand its regional express bus services, for counties to continue to operate their bus services independently, and for the Georgia Department of Transportation to provide commuter rail. And then there would be that regional transit planning agency trying to make sense of all of the above.
But none of this makes sense.
First of all, it would be so much cleaner for one agency to both plan and operate transit in the region placing full accountability under one roof.
And imagine if that unified transit agency actually coordinated the operations of heavy rail, light rail, commuter rail, streetcars, bus rapid transit, express buses and bus service for the entire region. Such an agency would do away with all the redundancies of having dozens of separate agencies needing their own heads of human resources, financing and administration.
Better yet, all this intergovernmental and interagency squabbling over reciprocal fare agreements, budgets, oversight and connecting disparate transit systems would cease.
ARC Executive Director Chick Krautler explained how untenable the current situation is and why we are stuck in limbo. A proposed bus rapid transit system along I-285 would cross over DeKalb, Fulton and Cobb counties. "We have no idea who is going to build it, own it or operate it," Krautler told the group.
And the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about is money.
"We have danced around everything except the question of funding," Ross says, "and it's clearly the most critical issue."
Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin says there needs to be a regional sales tax to fund transit so that it doesn't keep falling to the three jurisdictions (Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb) that have supported MARTA all these years. And she adds that a key question in this transit juggernaut is: "What role is the state willing to play?"
Unfortunately, the existing agencies GRTA, MARTA and the ARC are not suited to become that unified transit agency under their current governance. The GRTA board is controlled by one person, the governor, and one person cannot be responsive to the whole region. The ARC's governance traditionally has been weighted in favor of suburban counties at the expense of the urban MARTA counties.
And MARTA the one agency with the expertise to plan, operate and coordinate transit would need to broaden its service area and reconfigure its board so it would be able to serve the entire region.
None of these challenges is different from what existed seven years ago. As a region and as a state, we have wasted countless hours and accomplished little. And all the current talk shows little promise that we're getting any closer to providing a comprehensive transit system for the region.
It's a sad state of affairs.
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