Transit Bills: What They Do – And Don’t Do

As I’ve noted before, in my day job with PolicyBEST, I’ve once again been working with the Georgia Transportation Alliance in an effort that began in 2014 and resulted in the passage of HB170 in 2015 – the bill that provided for almost $1 Billion annually to fix Georgia’s roads & bridges. It also for the first time had the state contribute substantial capital money in bonds to transit projects across the state.

Those funds were a marker that the transportation issue wasn’t settled with HB170, and that additional funding would be needed to tackle congestion issues, specifically in metro Atlanta. To get to recurring revenue streams, however, a governance model had to be put in place. This wasn’t a state-sponsored foot dragging excuse. In fact, one of the state’s leading transit advocates told me that before the bond package was added to HB170 in 2015. Paraphrased, he told me “You can’t put money on the table to fight over until we know who is going to spend it, and how.” It seems that folks on all sides of this issue were determined not to make the mistakes of 2012 Regional T-SPLOST again.

Continued efforts resulted in a high profile study committee this summer that included major stakeholders on all sides of the issue. The committee looked at urban/suburban transit needs, but also rural Georgia. The bills that passed yesterday are distinctly Atlanta centric. It is envisioned that Savannah/Chatham will move a similar bill next year. Rural Georgia may move on some mobility questions in the future as well, but for now, for these bills, this is legislation seeking to solve a problem in Atlanta. Notably, it’s also mostly funded in the Atlanta region. Folks in Albany don’t have to worry about their tax dollars funding trains in Atlanta.

That’s a long preamble on how and why we got here. Now let’s talk about these bills. (Unless otherwise indicated, remarks that follow speak to the House bill.)

What do the bills actually do?

The premise of the bills is to create the “Atlanta Transit Link”. This isn’t creating a new agency or bureaucracy, but instead reconstitutes and renames GRTA, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, as The ATL. The ATL gets a new board, additional authority, and becomes the central planning agency for transit in the 13 county metro-Atlanta region.

Who is in The ATL?

13 counties are in The ATL service and governance area. They include the five counties covered under the MARTA Act (Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett) as well as Cherokee, Coweta, Douglas, Fayette, Forsyth, Henry, Paulding, and Rockdale.

So all these counties will have transit now?

Not exactly. Services like existing GRTA buses will remain and over time can be expanded, but major initiatives and the expenses that go with them remain up to the counties. Counties are not required to do anything they’re not currently doing or don’t want to do under these bills. This bill provides coordination and oversight, as well as some state funding. It is envisioned that current and future state funds will augment local funds currently being raised or that will be levied in the future for transit services.

We already have MARTA, why don’t we just use that?

We don’t just have MARTA, but we have 11 transit agencies operating within the region. One of the major priorities of this approach was to respect the work that has already been done both within MARTA and within the other counties and organizations that have created systems. The overall goal is to have a streamlined, seamless transit experience bringing all of these agencies under The ATL brand. It is envisioned that there can and will be consolidation over time, but the House bill does not mandate that.

So what happens to MARTA?

Nothing. MARTA remains MARTA. MARTA’s board remains in tact. MARTA continues to run their system. MARTA will continue to work with Atlanta and Clayton County on their existing expansion plans as current contracts allow for. None of this will be affected by the creation of the ATL board in January of 2019. The ATL will focus on future plans, not ones already in place or that have been funded/approved by voters.

With that said, the House and Senate versions agree that MARTA will be the exclusive provider of “heavy rail” in the region, including future expansions. If any county wants a subway like rail system, MARTA will be the exclusive provider. The Senate version sets a future RFP for bus service for one operator for the entire region. The House version allows for all current operators to either keep existing bus service operators but can change/consolidate as they see fit.

OK, then why do we need this “ATL” ?

The ATL is about moving the region forward by providing a level of coordination among agencies that doesn’t currently exist to build out a network that is seamless across geographic boundaries. The legislation provides both additional funding (which the ATL will manage and distribute) as well as additional flexibility to each of the 13 counties to make TSPLOSTs more transit friendly.

How is this funded?

The bill contemplates money from three sources:

    1. A 1% tax on airport concessions.
    2. A fifty cent charge on all ride share (Uber/Lyft) and taxi rides.  Sales taxes on these rides are eliminated for this flat fee.
    3. Local referendum.

Other future funding may be added, either from the annual state bond package or from other dedicated revenue streams.  This bill is much more about a governance structure first.  Once established, funding needs can be better identified and sources of funds identified and procured.

What’s in this for Gwinnett County?

In a word, flexibility and options.  Gwinnett can still join MARTA as-is, whether or not this bill passes. This bill doesn’t change that. MARTA’s current deal is a full penny county-wide tax, and you get bus service for that and then rail as funds allow.  Gwinnett already has bus service, however, and may only want rail. Or light rail.  Or BRT.

Fun thing about any of those options:  MARTA can still provide them too if that’s who Gwinnett commissioners and voters approve as part of their future transportation plans and MARTA agrees to operate their system.

If Gwinnett chooses to go their own way, the ATL provides for them to do that…subject to approval that their plan being part of a regional plan.  Gwinnett could submit a transit plan to the ATL for approval, and then once approved do up to a 30 year Transit SPLOST 1% tax to fund capital and operation of the system.  The choice of if, how, and when to proceed remains up to the Gwinnett Board of Commissioners and the voters of Gwinnett County.

What’s in this for Cobb County?

Everything that is said above about Gwinnett applies to Cobb.  Truth is, however, Gwinnett is closer to putting together a transit plan than Cobb is.  Cobb’s leaders and voters aren’t there yet.  Some of Cobb’s residents/voters want this badly.  They mostly live in the Cumberland/Smyrna/Mableton/Austell area.  As such, there was an attempt at compromise that would have allowed for a “Cobb Transit District” map to allow for only part of Cobb County to participate, both with taxes and service.  Cobb leaders, legislative and commission, couldn’t agree.  This provision was removed from the House version (wasn’t in Senate’s version at any point) before the final bill passed.  IF Cobb leaders can present a united map, this provision could be seen again, this session or a later one.

Also note:  The AJC burned a lot of tweets and e-mails yesterday headlined with “Cobb County Dropped From Transit Bill” – That’s a case of the headline not matching the story.  The Special Transit District for Cobb was dropped.  Cobb remains very much a part of “The ATL”.

What’s in this for (North and South) Fulton County?

North and South Fulton remain unique.  They’re part of MARTA.  They’ve been paying transit taxes for 40 years. They have bus service, but are told they need to pay MARTA more for rail…the same rail they’ve already been paying for. They’ve actively been studying their own incremental transit options and held public hearings on them and the associated costs of the top four proposals.

So they get two things:  They can do their own Transit SPLOST for the amounts not currently being used for existing T-SPLOSTs, or they can do similar to the City of Atlanta and do an additional fractional penny tax for MARTA.

In addition, they get the ability to connect East and West.  With the ATL and some cooperation from Gwinnett and/or Cobb, you could actually see the folks in North Fulton change some of the transit discussion from more North/South routes, so some East/West routes.

And those other 8 counties that are in The ATL but not covered under the MARTA act?

The ability – but no duty – to provide transit using sales taxes.  Right now, SPLOSTs are limited to five years.  That doesn’t allow for bonding or federal matching funds for transit projects.  With a 30 year window, outer counties that want to fund transit now have more ability to both chart their own future, AND get state assistance in doing so.

The counties can also continue to do nothing (Looking at you, Fayette and Cherokee).  Services and taxes to fund them remain primarily a local option.  To be clear, at the county level, doing nothing IS an option.

If one of these bills makes it into law, how soon will I see new trains, buses, or bus rapid transit?

The ATL board would be selected in January 2019.  At that point they would be in a position to review and approve plans submitted by counties to build a regional transit plan.  Once approved, a county would then go out to voters for a Transit SPLOST referendum.  Only then, with a county plan in place, would local taxes be collected and planning/design/construction begin on new transit.  Buses would be the quickest.  Heavy rail would take the longest.  BRT and light rail somewhere in between on the timeline.

Gwinnett or Cobb could continue to select a MARTA option at any time, with that timeline unaffected by The ATL, though the ATL would be involved in future approvals after January 2019.

If my county approves a Transit SPLOST, will THE ATL just take that money and use it elsewhere?

No.  Just no.

The plans are submitted to the ATL for approval prior to a referendum or taxes being collected.  The money isn’t given to the ATL to figure out what to do with it.  It’s a local up process, not a top down one.

Where’s the carrot, and where’s the stick, for this to change anything? 

There are two major carrots:  One is the economic development realities of companies that are telling local leaders that those without dedicated transit lines need not apply.  That is the reason Gwinnett is ready to proceed with a transit future, and the only reason that a constructive conversation is happening in Cobb.  The other 8 counties in metro-Atlanta can choose to be part of this as well under The ATL.

The other carrot is state funds.  While the amount dedicated under these bills is relatively small, it is envisioned as a start.  Once needs are better defined, it is very much anticipated that additional funds will follow.

The stick?  There’s not one.  Politically, this remains a dicey issue for all involved.  Republicans in the suburbs don’t want to be told they have to accept MARTA or even transit any more than Democrats in Fulton/DeKalb/Clayton are amused at the State taking away an infrastructure investment they have paid for over 40 years.  Taking a stick to either or both sides would be the best way to ensure this bill doesn’t happen, or doesn’t function properly.  This is about linking people together.  No shotgun wedding is required.




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