ATLANTA — Georgia lawmakers on Thursday pushed their recommendations for a comprehensive, statewide “Path Forward for Transit,” but did not call for any specific effort to create a regional transit system to govern existing entities such as MARTA and Cobb County’s CobbLinc bus system.
The recommendations, approved by the Senate Regional Transit Solutions Study Committee, include setting aside state funding to develop an “all-inclusive solution in the area of transit governance and funding,” with the goal of creating a statewide plan by the end of 2017. The seven-member committee was created this year by a Senate resolution aimed at determining whether “one comprehensive regional transit plan will be more beneficial to the state than a county-by-county or city-by-city approach.
“The state is not trying to take over transit — that’s not the intent. The intent is for us to try to collaborate with other systems, bring them together, unify them, share resources and make them more efficient and more user-friendly,” said state Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega.
There are more than 120 public transportation systems in operation across the state, according to the committee’s report. Gooch said lawmakers want to bring “all those players together” into one room to see how a unified transit plan could unify some of the systems, eliminate some of their redundancies and potentially offer greater service to riders.
Committee members present unanimously passed the recommendations, but not before including language from one of its members, state Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-west Cobb, which said that any transit proposals enacted would not be binding on counties until approved by their voters.
“I’m all for looking at (transit), I’m all for studying it and seeing how we put the counties together and see if it makes sense, but the counties have to agree that it makes sense,” Tippins said.
Tippins said he believes some of the traffic congestion woes seen in Cobb cannot be addressed locally, such as the typical clog across the northern arc of Interstate 285 from east to west, and those problems may require a regional approach to be solved.
But he said he wants new transit proposals to have the “wiggle room” provided by the requirement that voters approve of the changes because “there does not need to be an assumption that all the counties have signed onto this.
“There’s been a great deal of concern in the past about authorities wanting your money but not necessarily wanting to deal with your issues,” Tippins said. “One glaring example of that has been in MARTA in that a line has been proposed to run north and south ever since the inception of MARTA in the 1960s, and Fulton County just had to approve another quarter of a penny to try to get MARTA approved going on up into Fulton County, and they’ve already been paying for it since the inception. I think the voters always need to have a situation where they can make a determination if the cost is worth the benefit they’d be receiving. If we can look at shared resources, it makes a lot of sense, but I don’t want to be bound to it until I know what the final form is going to be.”
Gooch says he does not anticipate a comprehensive transit bill being considered by state legislators in 2017, though legislators may see smaller bills incorporate bits and pieces of the committee’s package of recommendations.
“I don’t think you’ll see any major reform legislation this year. I think it’s too early, because there are a lot of questions that need to be answered,” Gooch said, adding that he believed legislators themselves did not have the expertise to draft the right plan for the state’s transit issues and needed industry consultants to help craft such a plan.
Though Gooch said he did not want to throw out a number on how much the state would spend on consultants to look at transit, he said it was “not going to be in the millions of dollars” but a significant amount of money to show a commitment to the issue.
Cobb residents have not been supportive of major transit expansion and additional taxes for transportation in recent years. A proposed $494 million bus rapid transit line connecting Kennesaw State University with Midtown Atlanta — first unveiled in September 2012 as a recommendation from the county’s $1.8 million Northwest Corridor Alternatives Analysis study led by Croy Engineering — received more comments in opposition than in support during a public comment period last year.
In 2012, voters in Cobb and the 10-county metro region that year firmly rejected a proposed $8.5 billion tax increase for transportation known as T-SPLOST, with 63 percent of the region’s voters casting no votes. The sentiment was stronger in Cobb, as nearly 70 percent of those who went to the polls in Cobb voted against it.
Kerwin Swint, political science professor at Kennesaw State University, said only time will tell if Cobb and metro Atlanta residents support new transit initiatives and funding for them.
“I think a lot of it is how it’s presented. If people are happy sitting in their cars for half their life, then I suppose they won’t be supportive of efforts to fund it. It depends on how satisfied people are with their commutes and the transportation options where they are,” Swint said. “But with the T-SPLOST, for example, there’s been a lot of political opposition too. It hasn’t been simply a matter of will the public support it, but how much organized opposition will there be to it.”