By the AJC Editorial Board
As the Atlanta region chugs toward the 2012 T-SPLOST vote, it’s clear that many voters are pretty skeptical about how well tax proceeds allocated for transit would be spent.
These days, distrust of and even distaste for government spending from Washington on down to town halls is to be expected. And when that discussion turns to the transportation special purpose local option sales tax, it hasn’t helped matters any that taxpayers don’t yet know what government oversight for Atlanta’s multiple transit operators would look like.
That’s because the Georgia General Assembly did not pass a transit governance bill this year, despite having model legislation before them offered by the Atlanta Regional Commission. At the time, Rep. Donna Sheldon (R-Dacula), chair of the Joint Transit Governance Study Commission, issued a statement commending the ARC’s work, but added that “the creation of a single, unified, regional transit governance authority is a major undertaking and it should not be rushed into.”
The Legislature’s inaction left public officials in the strange position for the rest of this year of having to promote the T-SPLOST’s benefits without an important piece of the puzzle being in place.
If metro Atlantans are to stand any chance at all of seeing the beginnings of better commutes, it’s essential that a “thoroughly vetted,” to use Rep. Sheldon’s words, transit governance bill be presented to Gold Dome lawmakers soon after the opening gavel in January, if not earlier.
Recent action by Gov. Nathan Deal could increase the likelihood of that happening. Earlier this month, Deal signed into creation the Transit Governance Task Force. While few things can cause eyes to glaze over as quickly as a governor’s dryly worded executive order, we’re hopeful his move will result in the creation of a workable, politically acceptable draft bill that’s in legislative hands before the start of the next legislative session.
The Atlanta metro area and state certainly haven’t lacked for reports, plans and talking points about what needs to be done to help build a true 21st-century mass transportation system. Indeed, the various documents often seem to recite similar concepts. That in itself indicates there’s now a broader acceptance of the importance of providing new, efficient transit options here. We’ll call that a smart maturing of political thought, in our view.
Deal’s executive order confirms this thesis, stating, “More than 2 million jobs support the economy of metropolitan Atlanta, which is a driving force in the prosperity of the state of Georgia, and an additional 2.8 million people are projected to live and work in the region … during the next three decades.”
Linking those jobs and workers requires a smoothly functioning, well-integrated transit network. Deal’s order goes on to state that “the metropolitan Atlanta region has multiple transit entities operating essentially independently, which leads to an uncoordinated system that … falls short of achieving economies of scale and cost efficiencies …” Put another way, the status quo inadvertently does a suboptimal job of using hard-earned taxpayer dollars.
A better solution lies in the scenario outlined in the executive findings of the state transit governance commission, which found that “commuters, transit stakeholders and the general public would benefit from oversight, streamlining and coordination of the individual transit systems in the metro area.”
It’s encouraging that the right solution is making its way into relevant action documents. It’s good also that we’re coming into broad agreement on the problem and how we can best attack it in this era of tight resources.
Now we just need to get on with it and quickly give voters a fleshed-out vision of what a transit umbrella agency would look like, what it could do to help us get around more easily and how it could produce a better return on public investment.
Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board
What we need to do vs. what Chicago has done
From Georgia’s Transportation Investment Act of 2010:
“The State of Georgia, particularly the metropolitan Atlanta region, faces a number of critical issues relating to its transportation system and ever-increasing traffic congestion. In light of the dwindling resources available to help solve the problems, it is imperative that all available resources be used to maximum efficiency in order to alleviate the gridlock in and around the metropolitan Atlanta region.
“There exists a need for a thorough examination of our current transportation system and the methodical development of legislative proposals for a regional transit governing authority in Georgia.”
The Windy City example
Transit operators in the nation’s leading cities approach governance in various ways. Atlanta’s transportation planners have mentioned Chicago as a possible model for how to govern multiple transit operators. Here’s information on Chicago’s Regional Transportation Authority:
Origin: Created in 1974 after voters in six counties approved its formation as a “special purpose” unit of government
Purpose: Serves as the fiscal oversight, funding and planning agency for the Service Boards that operate much of the region’s rail and bus transit
Board size: 16. Fifteen are appointed by political leaders, plus a chairman elected by the body
Annual operating budget:
Asset value: More than $35 billion
Number of rider trips daily:
More than 2 million
National ranking: Third-largest in the United States
Footprint: 7,200 miles of transit routes in the six-county Chicago region
Vehicles: 5,600 buses and trains and 650 vans
What does it do?
● Levy regional taxes and pursue and administer federal, state and local monies
● Develop annual operating budget and two-year financial plan
● Conduct 10-year assessment of the system’s financial condition
● Conduct financial, performance, infrastructure and management audits
● Adopt long-term comprehensive strategic plans
● Adopt local “sub-regional” plan
Source: Chicago RTA