A Republican lawmaker from Dunwoody this week added a new dimension to metro Atlanta’s debate over transportation — a proposal that the state of Georgia assume control of MARTA.
Unlike other GOP offers to seize urban assets — Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport comes to mind — Fran Millar’s overture doesn’t come in the spirit of a hostile takeover.
Instead, Millar said, his proposal is spurred by recognition that Fulton and DeKalb counties can no longer finance the Southeast’s largest mass transit system by themselves, and that the entire state’s economic future depends on cobbling together a larger metro Atlanta network.
Also, voters in cars are getting pretty ticked.
“This isn’t about MARTA. This is about a larger transportation plan that includes MARTA,” Millar said in an interview.
The lawmaker sketched out his idea in an opinion piece in Sunday’s AJC. But he has been testing his message for weeks. Last month, Millar delivered his pitch to the North Fulton Chamber of Commerce. Afterward, another speaker at the meeting wrapped him in a bear hug.
She was Beverly Scott, the CEO and general manager of MARTA.
But in the cold light of day, away from the enthusiasm of the moment, what’s to be made of such an offer?
Republican wags at the state Capitol denigrate MARTA as a sinkhole of waste and inefficiency, but the reputation of the state Department of Transportation — where Millar would lodge MARTA, under the control of the governor — is no better.
In a sidewalk discussion this week, one GOP strategist didn’t dispute that Millar’s proposal may be grounded in logic and common sense. But he said the lawmaker’s biggest hurdle would be Republican apathy.
During hard times, life is divided into baubles and necessities. And among many of Millar’s GOP brethren, MARTA remains a bauble.
Several hours later, in Scott’s sixth-floor office, the general manager of MARTA said much the same thing. Very politely.
A merger with state government is likely to be a highly emotional issue, on both sides of the coin, she acknowledged.
But the MARTA board, Scott said, understands “that with new funding and with new partners, there’s going to be a change in governance. No question.”
Scott wouldn’t expect the state to be a majority partner, but there would be a cost. That would be the point. “You don’t just get to talk about taking it over. It’s about having the state and others step up,” she said.
“If we don’t wind up being coordinated, if we are fragmented, if are balkanized, if we are cannibalizing ourselves for no good reason, that’s not where we want to end up being.”
Scott is unsure what value Republicans in the Capitol place on mass transit. Her experience from the winter session of the Legislature still stings.
Under state law, MARTA isn’t allowed to spend more than 50 percent of its sales tax revenue on operating expenses. The rest must go toward infrastructure.
Scott prowled the hallways of the Capitol last year, arguing that more access to its own cash was necessary if MARTA were to survive. The Legislature refused.
Only a dose of federal stimulus money and a last-minute, financial two-step by the Atlanta Regional Commission and its chairman, Sam Olens, averted a shutdown of much of the mass transit agency’s operations.
The incident still elicits a flash of anger from Scott. “If there had been no federal stimulus, if there had been no ARC, we would have had to close down the service and nobody cared. We were at our knees and that was no joke,” she remembered.
Millar thinks the MARTA executive misinterprets the real meaning of what happened. The action by the ARC, Millar said, was the first substantive recognition by other metro Atlanta counties that they bear some responsibility for keeping MARTA afloat.
And that’s a good thing.
Millar takes Scott’s point on the reluctance of many Republican lawmakers to embrace the necessity of mass transit. But events may be conspiring to change that.
On March 31, while the Legislature is likely to be in session, the MARTA-operated transit system in troubled Clayton County is scheduled to shut down for lack of funding. Riders on the system took 2 million trips last year and 60 percent of them used the service to get to and from jobs.
Though the system is only 6 years old, Clayton buses carry some of the heaviest loads in Georgia. Two-thirds of the riders say they have no other form of transportation.
The Legislature will be asked to help save it, and will have to decide if it wants to be something more than a bystander to disaster. “The impending shutdown of the Clayton County bus system may be just the catalyst necessary to get this off the dime,” Millar said.
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