Spinning our Wheels

Spinning our Wheels is a commuting blog about the challenges of getting around Atlanta by car, bus, MARTA, bicycles and on foot written by transportation reporter David Wickert

Metro Atlanta transit funding: MARTA's proposed solution

As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported, the General Assembly will consider increasing state funding for mass transit this year.  And some lawmakers want to reshape the oversight of transit service in metro Atlanta.

Currently, a slew of local agencies provides transit service, including MARTA, Gwinnett County Transit, CobbLinc and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority. The idea is to create a regional board to consolidate transit funding and planning.

But lawmakers are still hashing out the details, which raise sensitive political questions. How large should the region be? Who would serve on the board? Who gets to decide how the money is spent in any given county or city?

MARTA Board Chairman Robbie Ashe has a solution he says would sidestep those thorny questions.

Ashe told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution the state should take on a grant-making role and leave planning and governance to the existing local agencies.

Like the Federal Transit Administration, Ashe said the state could shape the region’s transit service by adopting criteria that local agencies would have to meet to quality for competitive grants. Such criteria could include the cost per mile of projects, how many people they serve per mile, and how they meet state or regional economic development goals.

The beauty of the solution, Ashe says, is it gives the state control over how its money is spent without requiring it to get involved in detailed decisions best left to local transit providers – like where to put bus stops or other operational decisions.

“I don’t think anyone argues with the basic proposition that if you put money into transit you should have a voice in how that money is being spent,” Ashe said. “The neatness of that solution is they can have a hundred percent control over a hundred percent of their dollars.”

In fact, Georgia took just such an approach when it divvied up $75 million in grants for transit capital projects in 2016.

That approach may not satisfy some lawmakers. They want to increase the efficiency of the region’s transit system by consolidating at least some of the functions currently carried out by the local transit agencies. They could use state funding as a carrot to entice systems to give up some of their local control.

State Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, says he’ll unveil a proposal by the end of January. Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, also is working on a Senate plan.

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