Opinion: How Republicans came to see transit as a viable option

A guy from Blue Ridge, a guy from Dawsonville, a guy from East Cobb, a woman from Johns Creek and a woman from Dacula walk into a bar — I mean, a press briefing — to talk about a bill. They’re all Republicans. Care to guess what the bill’s about?

If you guessed “expanding mass transit,” you deserve an extra cookie for dessert. And a trip down memory lane to recall just how radical this scene would have been even a few years ago.

Back in 2010, as lawmakers crafted the measure creating the ill-fated (in most parts of Georgia) T-SPLOST referendum, “transit” might have been as much of a taboo among conservatives as “taxes.” That bill passed with only grudging acceptance that the metro Atlanta region might try to build some transit projects. Five years later, a bill to pump $1 billion more each year into transportation infrastructure included an unprecedented, yet still relatively small, $75 million in bonds for transit.

So the aforementioned group this past week — House Speaker David Ralston and transportation Chairman Kevin Tanner, Cobb Commissioner Bob Ott, Fulton Commissioner Liz Hausmann, and Gwinnett Commission Chair Charlotte Nash — broke real ground in the way the state approaches transit as a mode of transportation.

Tanner’s bill, HB 930, is the product of that long evolution from 2010 and much earlier. (A similar bill by his counterpart in the Senate, Sen. Brandon Beach, will also figure heavily into the discussion.) There is not a transformative amount of money connected to the bill, although that could change. But both Tanner and Beach aim to create a regional board to coordinate and connect the 11 separate systems currently serving 13 metro Atlanta counties, as well as planning expansions of the network they loosely compose.

Tanner’s bill in particular gives the 10 counties not served by MARTA additional options for funding and building transit routes, while leaving MARTA intact. It’s designed to give counties more flexibility in whether and how they handle transit.

Given how distant a possibility this seemed within this very decade, what changed?

There are several answers, from worsening congestion to shifting public opinion. But four factors stand out.

First are the changes at MARTA under its board chairman, Robbie Ashe, and recently departed CEO, Keith Parker. MARTA no longer bleeds money each year. That, along with the agency’s efforts to rein in what Parker called “knuckleheads” who detracted from other riders’ experience, gave it and transit more generally a better standing in legislators’ eyes.

Second is demand from business. Nothing has driven the Deal administration and the General Assembly more than economic development, and prospects for relocations or expansions have made it clear they want more transportation options for their employees.

Third is a shift in emphasis away from heavy rail and toward options such as bus rapid transit. Given metro Atlanta’s lack of density and everywhere-to-everywhere commuting patterns, significant additions to heavy rail is not only time-consuming but cost-prohibitive. The emergence of BRT as an alternative changed the debate.

Finally, there’s synergy with the state’s road-building plans. BRT isn’t much cheaper than rail if it involves building new, dedicated lanes. But the state’s growing network of tolled express lanes, in which cars can pay to ride but buses can use for free, offers a platform for better, faster bus service. Piggybacking off those projects allows transit to expand not only cheaper but faster and further than it would otherwise, making it more attractive to policymakers. Not to mention that having roads double as transit infrastructure allows more flexibility if autonomous vehicles become as ubiquitous and transformational as forecast.

Put it all together, and that’s how we made the long trip from 2010 to today.

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