In impassioned remarks Wednesday night, House Speaker David Ralston told colleagues that it was time to stop thinking and talking about “the two Georgias” — metro Atlanta and the rest of the state —and refocus on one Georgia.
A proposed new transportation bill then awaiting a House vote did just that, Ralston said. In fact, he said, he had specifically instructed House negotiators on the bill to “make sure this plan helps MARTA, helps Atlanta, because in doing so we help Georgia.”
After Ralston spoke, House members quickly approved the bill by a vote of 141-29. A few minutes later, the Senate followed suit, 43-8. However, many of those voting had very little idea what the bill did, because it had been revealed publicly just a few hours earlier.
So does the plan accomplish the goals set by Ralston?
For years, metro Atlanta political and business leaders have begged the state Legislature for a means to finance badly needed transportation projects in the region, but to no avail. The plan now awaiting the signature of Gov. Sonny Perdue does go a long way toward meeting that need.
It gives metro Atlanta and 11 other regions in Georgia the right — with voter approval — to impose a 1 percent sales tax on themselves to finance transportation projects. From the beginning, the goal of such a system was to ensure that money raised within the region was spent within the region, on projects and priorities that are established by the region.
House Bill 277 does not do that, or at least not all of that. All money raised in the metro region will stay in the region, but the region’s authority to decide its own transportation future is significantly restricted.
Under the bill, a “regional roundtable” of county commissioners and mayors will compile a list of transportation projects to submit to voters for their approval. However, the roundtable’s list can include only those projects previously approved by the state transportation planning director, who is an appointee of the governor.
In other words, metro Atlanta and other regions can pick only projects that the next governor will allow us to pick.
The bill also forbids metro Atlanta from using even a dime of revenue from its regional transportation tax to help MARTA, the financially distressed core of regional public transit, meet its operating needs.
The Augusta region is free to use regional funds to help Augusta Public Transit; the Savannah region can support Chatham Area Transit financially. The Atlanta metro region can even use regional dollars to help Gwinnett County Transit or Cobb Community Transit.
But it cannot help MARTA.
There’s no rationale for such a provision except the purely political. It exists solely because legislators needed a certain degree of MARTA-bashing in the bill if it was to win legislative approval, and that’s a sad commentary on the state of affairs in Georgia.
That said, however, MARTA does get some help in the bill. It suspends for three years a state law that requires MARTA to spend at least 50 percent of its tax revenue on capital expenses rather than operations, a step that will at least give the agency some flexibility in dealing with its financial crisis.
And while the funding option is critical, in the long run another provision of the bill may prove to be equally important. It calls for creation of a Transit Governance Study Commission for metro Atlanta to analyze “the feasibility of combining all of the regional public transportation entities into an integrated regional transit body.”
That commission, comprising suburban and urban metro transit officials, officials from the Atlanta Regional Commission and eight metro-area legislators, is tasked to produce a preliminary report by the end of this year with recommendations for the “methodical development of legislative proposals for a regional transit governing authority in Georgia.”
The legislation also explicitly endorses “Concept 3,” the regional transit system proposed by the metro region’s Transit Planning Board in 2008, after a two-year planning process.
That plan calls for an ambitious — and expensive — network of transit options linking all parts of metro Atlanta, from Canton south to Griffin and Lawrenceville west to Dallas. Building that network would be the work of two generations, but it has to start somewhere.
Maybe, just maybe, that process started this week.