Last week, the State Transportation Board ousted its third commissioner in four years.
Vance Smith, a former state lawmaker from Pine Mountain, was given his notice eight months after a frozen reaction to an ice storm that paralyzed much of the state for days — and handed newly sworn-in Gov. Nathan Deal an immediate crisis.
A glazed metro Atlanta wasn’t cited as a direct reason for Smith’s dismissal. Suffice it to say that one never gets a second chance to make a first impression on the new boss — especially if that boss is worried about breaking a hip.
On the eve of multimillion-dollar campaigns across the state, aimed at pushing through a sales tax for transportation, the idea of yet another executive search for someone to top Georgia’s road-and-bridge bureaucracy ought to have resulted in laundry baskets full of knotted underwear.
But those concerned with how Georgia moves were actually distracted by some very good, but very quiet news that probably escaped your attention.
At nearly the very hour that Smith was shown the door, the governor issued an innocuous little executive order, creating yet another task force. But just past the last “whereas” and the final “resolved” was the nugget that Deal had demanded a specific piece of legislation to be drawn up by the time the Legislature assembles in January.
At minimum, the governor ordered, the measure should designate “a state agency or authority with the responsibilities of oversight and coordination of transit services in the metro Atlanta region.”
Let us put this in diplomatic, Nixon-goes-to-China terms. A Republican governor has asked a GOP-controlled Legislature for a bill that would formally recognize the need for this state’s government to participate in a solution to metro Atlanta’s commuter hell. That same governor has named transit — as in “mass” — outside the current confines of Fulton and DeKalb counties as part of that solution.
At the state Capitol, it is possible to judge a topic’s importance by the unwillingness of its owners to discuss it. Neither Deal nor the two lawmakers assigned to lead the effort — state Rep. Donna Sheldon, R-Dacula, and state Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga — would step beyond the news release.
But if you consider that only two weeks ago, the Legislature rebuffed Deal’s effort to shift the date of next year’s sales tax vote from July to the more favorable ground of the November general election, then one thing becomes clear: Georgia’s new governor is surprisingly stubborn when it comes to advocating for the nuts and bolts of economic development.
Setting aside the Democratic efforts of Gov. Roy Barnes, the current push for state involvement in mass transit can be traced back five years or so to Sam Olens, when he was both chairman of the Cobb County Commission and the Atlanta Regional Commission.
The idea that he and others — Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and Fulton County Commission Chairwoman Karen Handel included — came up with was a state agency, with local participation, that gave light oversight to existing transit systems.
“You could still have a MARTA, you could still have a [Cobb Community Transit], you could still have a Gwinnett Transit,” said Olens, now attorney general. “That would be a decision of the local governments.”
But all requests to the feds for cash or new technology would be made through the state. “What they inherently dislike is when local governments come to them with competing requests,” Olens said. By necessity, the state would become the big-picture planner of metro Atlanta transportation.
Olens’ successor as chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission, Tad Leithead, was effusive in his praise for the governor and called legislation to create a state transit agency “the linchpin to the successful passage of the [sales tax] referendum.”
How’s that? First, there is the possibility that a state transit agency — however rudimentary — could serve as a good faith statement to Fulton and DeKalb counties, easing resentment over the penny sales tax that they’ve paid over the past four decades. With very little state help.
Also, 55 percent of the $6 billion or so that would be raised for transportation in metro Atlanta over 10 years would go to transit projects. One of the largest projects, a rail line to the Cumberland area of Cobb County, falls outside MARTA’s jurisdiction.
“It’s vital that we have a clear understanding of how a transit system will be governed,” Leithead said.
Over the past several weeks, as opposition to the transportation sales tax has cranked up, the discussion has begun to resemble the debate that metro Atlanta had decades ago, when mass transit and desegregation became one and the same issue.
We’ve had talk of “MARTA Republicans.” Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren has warned of the increased crime that might accompany mass transit.
A state imprimatur on mass transit may help some voters over that lingering hurdle. “The debate we had in the ’60s and ’70s around MARTA has certainly not served the region well,” Leithead said — pointing out that it left metro Atlanta’s two most prosperous counties, Cobb and Gwinnett, drowning in a sea of single-occupancy vehicles.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider