Nearly two years after an unlikely bipartisan coalition and other factors sank the Grand Bargain known as the T-SPLOST, there are hopeful signs that metro Atlanta may be edging toward a renewed drive for transportation improvements.
That’s encouraging, given the magnitude of our region’s mobility problems. The points we’ll outline below represent as good a starting point as any on the long walk toward solutions. These early efforts deserve to be played out fully to see where they lead. To do anything less is to risk continuing, or even exacerbating, the congestion problems that adversely impact our quality of life and economic competitiveness.
It’s with that mindset that we take note of positive legislation that emerged from the Georgia General Assembly this year. As we noted repeatedly on this page during the recent Gold Dome session, election-year politics too often triumphed over legislation that could have made a difference on some of Georgia’s biggest challenges.
That was not the case with a pair of bills affecting MARTA that passed muster at the Gold Dome. One amounted to a legislative vote of confidence in the substantive changes that the transit agency has begun under CEO Keith T. Parker. The second bill grants Clayton County flexibility to begin work toward resuming transit service, perhaps by joining MARTA.
Taken together, these bills are a solid step forward in what will be a long process of improving transit offerings and transit agency performance in this growing region.
We’re heartened to see that lawmakers adopted a more practical, 21st-century outlook in recognizing the work MARTA’s been pursuing with considerable speed to improve its financial and operational efficiency.
That has not always been the case. In recent memory, grandstanding and nitpicking of MARTA’s books seemed more the usual legislative order of business.
So this year’s positive approach and legislative action is a good move in a productive direction.
It is also a worthwhile recognition of the significant positive results that have been achieved during Parker’s first year as MARTA chief. He’s faced the agency’s largest challenges head-on and begun to implement visible strategies to address them. The wide sweep of his to-do list, for example, has encompassed both reining-in roguish passengers and pushing for management overhauls that could cut big dollars from the agency’s overhead.
The work Parker’s driven has gained notice where it counts. Consider that House Bill 264 gives MARTA three years’ reprieve from the so-called 50/50 rule, which mandates that the agency split spending equally between operations and capital expenses. The rule itself signals a sizable degree of distrust, so the Gold Dome is to be commended for the three-year hiatus.
By the time the matter comes up again, we are hopeful that MARTA will be finished with the major work of wrenching its fiscal house into unassailable good order. If that happens — and by all means it should — the agency should have a really strong case for asking that be 50/50 stipulation permanently go away.
CEO Parker’s given every indication so far that he’s up to the formidable task of revamping MARTA. If he completes the promised back-end work and other improvements, he deserves lawmakers’ additional support both legislatively and financially.
HB 264 also contains intriguing language that would allow Gwinnett and Cobb counties to begin a relationship with MARTA if they so chose — and if voters approve. Both counties currently operate their own bus systems, but from an efficiency and service standpoint, the possibility of greater collaboration with the transit backbone that is MARTA is quite intriguing.
We all know, too, that transit is not the only element of our transportation matrix in need of a lot of work. For starters, the problem remains of how to pay for urgent, long-overdue infrastructure improvements.
Here too there seems to be early, but growing coalescence around ways to finance such work in a politically palatable manner.
The Georgia Public Policy Foundation and others, including the new PolicyBEST group, make a good case that part of a workable funding formula includes updates and revisions to the state’s antiquated motor fuel tax formula.
Among the ideas that deserve an honest hearing is steering the so-called “fourth penny” of the gas tax from the state general treasury into accounts intended for transportation purposes. The General Assembly should begin acting on these commonsense proposals next year.
The region could also benefit from legislation enabling smaller SPLOSTS that allow sub-regional votes on paying for transportation improvements. That should satisfy local control concerns.
And work toward expanded pay-as-you-go toll road projects should also continue without delay, as should badly needed highway upgrades such as rebuilding the I-285/Georgia 400 intersection.
We need all this and more to begin slowly un-snarling Atlanta and Georgia.
Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.