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Moving Forward on Regional Transit

Posted on: Feb 20, 2018

by Kerry Armstrong, ARC Board Chairman

UPDATE: The House and Senate both passed their versions of regional transit legislation on Crossover Day, February 28thHB 930 passed by a vote of 162-13, while SB 386 passed with a 51-4 vote in favor.  There are differences between the bills, which will be worked out in a conference committee over the final month of session, prior to Day 40 on March 29th.

Transportation has always been the engine driving metro Atlanta’s economy forward.

We were founded as a railroad hub. Our transportation network – our highways, heavy rail system, and world-class airport – helped us become a regional and global leader.

Now, we have the opportunity to make another significant leap: Georgia state lawmakers are considering landmark legislation that would create a regional transit governance and funding framework in our region.

The Atlanta Regional Commission applauds the state Legislature, and particularly the bold leadership of Rep. Kevin Tanner and Sen. Brandon Beach, for making regional transit a priority this year.

We have long supported this approach and believe that a truly regional transit network is needed to improve mobility and keep our economy competitive. After all, traffic congestion doesn’t stop at the city or county line. It’s a regional problem that requires a regional solution.

The House and Senate bills have some differences, but they share the same innovative approach to addressing our regional transportation needs. You can learn more about House Bill 930 and Senate Bill 386 online. But here are some highlights:

Establishes a Regional Governance Structure

Metro Atlanta now has a collection of transit agencies that act independently, serving different parts of the community. This can make it difficult for people to use transit when their commutes require crossing county lines, as is the case for so many of us.

The proposed legislation creates a new regional transit governance structure – the Atlanta-region Transit Link Authority, or “The ATL.” The ATL would be charged with developing a regional transit plan for a 13-county region that includes Cherokee, Clayton, Coweta, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Forsyth, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry, Paulding, and Rockdale counties.

The plan will aim to identify and prioritize transit projects needed to improve mobility and quality of life across metro Atlanta. This plan would be developed in close consultation with ARC and the region’s transit operators.

Provides New Opportunities for Regional Transit Funding

Of course, without additional funding, any plan that is developed will just sit on a shelf and gather dust.

The legislation in the House creates new dedicated funding streams for our region: a fee on rides in taxis and ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft; and a tax on goods and services at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

In addition, the bill would enable counties in The ATL to raise additional sales taxes of up to 1 percent for up to 30 years, to finance projects or fund long-term transit operations. This duration is needed to be competitive for potential federal funding.

While the House and Senate must work out details, we’re encouraged that funding solutions are being discussed. For too long, Georgia has lagged our competitors in the Southeast and nationally when it comes to transit funding.

Provides Flexibility and Autonomy for Member Counties

The legislation has been carefully crafted to ensure that each county must “opt in” to any specific project or funding mechanism. Nothing can be dictated from the regional level.

This is critically important. We know there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to transit. Different parts of our region have different needs and political sensibilities. Some are eager to expand now, while others may not be ready for decades, if at all.

Preserves Legacy of Existing Transit Systems

The legislation calls for a unified brand name – The ATL – for all transit service in the region. But that doesn’t mean a takeover of MARTA or any other system.

MARTA, for instance, would retain operational and funding autonomy and remain the sole provider of passenger rail service for the region. And MARTA will still get to decide how it spends the new half-cent sales tax that voters in the city of Atlanta approved in 2016.

Now is the Time to Act

Expanding regional transit has long been a goal of many in our region, but funding and political solutions have proved elusive.

That’s why the momentum we’re seeing in the state Legislature is so exciting. Support for The ATL is building among elected officials from both parties, representing urban, suburban and rural parts of the state.

These bills provide an historic opportunity to improve mobility across metro Atlanta, provide new commuting options, and keep our economy competitive. The time is right to take action.