This week’s Courier Herald column:
The journey that culminated in this year’s Atlanta regional transit bill began years ago, and has been an ongoing effort since the 2015 bill that increased funding for Georgia’s road and bridge network. Included in that bill was a bond package split between transit providers across the state, urban and rural systems alike. It was a bit of a footnote, but also a promise that there was more to come.
Two Senators that served on the study committee that produced the 2015 bill kept that promise close at hand. Senator Brandon Beach shifted his focus quickly and publicly to the Atlanta region’s patchwork of transit systems. While many in rural Georgia find “MARTA” synonymous with transit, the Atlanta area alone has multiple other systems, including county run systems in both Cobb and Gwinnett.
Both are counties covered under the act authorizing MARTA but as of yet preferring only limited connection with the agency. Beach decided to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of the system, producing a video of a trip from Cobb County to Gwinnett. It required purchasing separate tickets on three different systems. The trip took four hours.
The point was – and is – that Atlanta is a region with half the state’s population, but getting from here to there is getting harder rather than easier. The barriers to fixing the issue were larger than just the money required. The biggest of them all are entrenched political beliefs and fiefdoms that required significant compromise to end the stalemate. In the end, it also required the significant help of “honest brokers”.
In a stalemate, there are positions that are steadfast and moving them requires compromise on both sides. In this case, there was the “MARTA” position which was carried not just by the organization but many of the political interests of urban Atlanta, the suburban positions of those who have invested in their own systems, those who are dubious of giving up local control, and those who reject the idea of public transit completely.
Finding common ground amidst these competing opinions and agendas has been elusive for decades. And yet, the momentum has clearly been on finding a regional solution since it became clear that “transit” became more synonymous with “economic development” than with “transportation of last resort”.
The other Senator that kept his eye on promises made was Steve Gooch, the Majority Whip from Dahlonega Georgia. For those unfamiliar, Dahlonega is the county seat of Lumpkin County in the North Georgia mountains, and isn’t on anyone’s list for a mass transit station. Still, the former Senate Transportation Chair understood that a major problem in Atlanta can become a statewide problem if uncorrected – especially when economics are involved.
Senator Gooch is credited behind the scenes with helping create a transit study commission, which ultimately became a House effort. House Speaker David Ralston, also from the North Georgia Mountains who counts Gooch as one of his constituents, has been a vocal supporter of a regional transit solution as well as MARTA, specifically. Senator Beach held a parallel committee effort in the Senate.
The House Study Commission included Gwinnett County Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash, North Fulton County Commissioner Liz Hausmann, and Cobb County Commissioner Bob Ott, among others. Each have constituencies that are considering transit expansions at various levels. MARTA was also represented in an Ex-officio capacity.
The challenge for those involved was how to divide up their own turf. All sides had to give something in order to get a bigger pie for all to share. 40 years of stalemate is hard to break, even when interested parties work together, face to face.
Enter the role of House Transportation Chairman Kevin Tanner, a Republican from Dawsonville Georgia – also not on anyone’s list for a transit station. Tanner has spent much of the last year talking to virtually every potential stakeholder of Atlanta’s regional transit system. As a farmer, Tanner is used to getting in the weeds, and pulling them when necessary. He took the time to listen to critics and criticisms. He turned skepticism into respect. His dogged determination resulted in changes up until the last minute to get the best bill that would work for the most people addressing the most concerns.
Upon the bill’s passage, Tanner got a rare standing ovation from his peers in the House. That’s a sign of respect from those who understood the level of time and effort required to get to a “yes”.
The effort was not exclusively Republican. Also worthy of the “honest broker” merit badge is Representative Calvin Smyre. The Columbus Democrat is the Dean of the House, who also played a pivotal role in the passage of 2015’s funding bill. He recognized this effort to bridge the gap was sincere, and made sure Democrats didn’t pass on the opportunity over partisanship nor a lack of flexibility.
The result is a bill that most Georgians will likely never understand its nuances, but is nonetheless quite significant. The battle over how to spend money and who will oversee it as the next generation of transit systems are planned and funded is over. A series of seamless transit networks operating under one umbrella – The ATL – will be the future of transit for half of Georgians. And thanks go not only to key leaders from within the Atlanta region, but several honest brokers willing to donate their time and clout for the betterment of an entire state.
Charlie Harper is the publisher of GeorgiaPol.com and the Executive Director of PolicyBEST, which focuses on policy issues of Business Climate, Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation.