The Senate Regional Transit Solutions Study Committee held its second meeting this morning, and after hearing from MARTA CEO Keith Parker and Board Chairman Robbie Ashe, the committee members were unable to reach consensus on whether MARTA would be the appropriate vehicle for regional transit governance. While committee members were generally pleased with the progress MARTA has made in improving service and managing its finances, Sens. P.K. Martin of Gwinnett county and Lindsey Tippins of Cobb county weren’t ready to admit the two counties were ready to join the system.
Martin pointed out that his district stretches from Barrow County to almost the DeKalb County line, and as he talks to his constituents, he gets support for transit in the southrn part of the district, but in the north, not so much. He maintained that the region’s second largest county can’t make a decision on whether to join MARTA or not until they decide what type of transit they want, and how it is going to be run. Gwinnett has traditionally been against joining the MARTA system.
Tippins indicated he would want to see a firm proposal from MARTA on what the costs would be, and what benefits Cobb county would receive by joining. He appeared to be concerned that promises of future transit service might not come to pass without the need for additional funding, citing the upcoming referendum in Atlanta that would provide for a half-penny sales tax for capital improvements.
For his part, Chairman Ashe said that he wasn’t interested in any type of “shotgun wedding” that would bring the other two counties authorized by the MARTA act into the system. He would prefer that the two counties come to MARTA seeking an agreement. Ashe pointed out that the existing transit agencies already work well together.
Senator Beach, who last year proposed a funding measure that would extend heavy rail up Georgia 400, said that in order to become a world class region, Cobb and Gwinnett need to join MARTA. Beach appeared impatient to start expanding the MARTA system, saying that he would re-introduce his North Fulton rail bill in the 2017 session, and that work could begin on it and light rail along the Emory corridor without having to resolve the regional issue, since these two extensions are likely to be constructed in any case.
Also speaking at the hearing was Robert Hiatt of the Georgia Transit Association, which has considered statewide transit issues. Hiatt addressed the issue of statewide transit governance, recommending that there should be a statewide transit agency charged with administering both public and human services programs, develop policy guidande, and maximize state transit funding. The group recommends that the agency develop a strategic plan for transit, and then update it every five years.
The committee plans to have one additional meeting before producing its final report for the legislature to consider in January. While the Senate committee appears to be a bit further along than the House in considering whether the right transit solution is getting MARTA to expand to its constitutionally authorized five counties, or whether another method of governance should be recommended.
And, no matter which solution recommended, there will still be a chicken and egg question. Do you put together regional governance, and then figure out what transit looks like from there, or do you design a system with a scope and a cost that is acceptable to voters, and hope that they approve of what you’ve done.