MARTA tango 

New transit agency chairman works with angry lawmaker

What an odd couple. Ed Wall, he's the sly one with the deceptive Southern accent. He's the one who tried to put a tack in the tire of the Georgia road hog juggernaut. State Rep. Jill Chambers, R-Atlanta, she's the fast-talking, hot-tempered one who's got MARTA tied in knots.

Yet somehow they seem to get along.

Wall, an investment banker, was named chairman of MARTA Jan. 1. He immediately delayed adoption by an Atlanta Regional Commission committee of a resolution from Gov. Sonny Perdue's Congestion Mitigation Task Force that would radically change the formula for selecting future transportation projects. The task force resolved that, in evaluating a project's potential, 70 percent of the decision-making emphasis should be placed on traffic congestion relief, up from the previous 11 percent. All other factors, such as environmental impact and safety, were diminished.

Wall tabled the resolution for a month so he could study it. The month enabled the ARC to work on an amendment that said the regional planning agency still had an obligation to incorporate a fully balanced transportation plan that includes mass transit as well as cars. The committee voted on it last week.

"We added a little old word called 'shall,'" Wall says. The resolution now says the ARC "shall develop a multi-modal transportation system, meet all federal planning requirements, and implement a multi-faceted approach to congestion relief."

"And damned if the damned thing didn't pass," Wall says. "Isn't that great?"

Well, yes, as far as it goes. But it's important to note that Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and City Councilwoman Claire Muller voted against the resolution anyway.

And it is even more important to note that Perdue's road-hog philosophy driving the resolution is a recipe for disaster. The emphasis in Atlanta remains on building ever-wider roads that will quickly clog with more cars. It is sheer madness.

Brian Stone, a Georgia Tech professor of urban planning, wrote in the AJC this week that if the task force's formula is enacted, "traffic congestion around the region is likely to get progressively worse." He asked why any member of the ARC would "vote to adopt policy changes that are known to be traffic-inducing?"

Still, Wall got some credit from transportation activists for his effort at ARC. And then he had to head a couple of blocks south to the Capitol, to wade in against Chambers, who heads the Legislature's MARTA oversight committee, known as MARTOC.

Chambers is a Buckhead art gallery owner who has become a demon to some MARTA backers who feel she is grandstanding against the transit agency.

State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, says Chambers is running what "borders on an inquisition" in tempestuous meetings. "Every meeting goes on at length, with question after question. It wouldn't be so bad if it led to a Perry Mason moment, but it doesn't," he says. "They don't ever find anything."

Fort feels Chambers may be out to undermine MARTA as part of the governor's transportation strategy. He notes that Perdue didn't even bother to include MARTA on the Congestion Mitigation Task Force, despite the fact that the system carries at least 95 percent of the region's mass transit trips.

Since last year, Chambers has tied up in her committee a vitally important MARTA money bill that would extend a provision that allows MARTA to spend 55 percent of its sales tax revenues on operations instead of a 50-50 split between capital and operations established years ago. She's tabled another bill that would let MARTA spend a portion of its interest income on operations.

I asked Wall if he thought Chambers was hostile to MARTA's future.

"I don't think she is hostile to the MARTA customer," he says. "She might be at times hostile to MARTA management. I firmly and completely and totally believe that Rep. Jill Chambers has the best interest of MARTA at heart. I have a great working relationship with her."

I asked Chambers why she was holding up the MARTA bill.

"The official line is that we're still studying that bill," she says. "We're still studying it because we're still waiting on information requested in June from MARTA."

I spoke to her on a Friday, and she said Wall was on the way over that day to personally deliver to her an explanation for $40 million in computer purchases and contracts that she had first asked for in August.

"Ed and I get along very, very well," she says. "It's such a new day, because for the last year I feel like I've been butting my head against a brick wall. Ed and I have many of the same questions. He knows how to follow money."

Chambers was infuriated when she asked MARTA bureaucrats about the agency's budget. "In our first meeting, they brought a damn 20-page PowerPoint presentation. I'm just over these PowerPoint presentations. I hate 'em! I want facts and numbers."

She especially wants facts and numbers about what she describes as a poorly audited engineering partnership under contract with MARTA called Regional Transit Partners, or RTP.

As she looked into RTP through an Internet search engine, she came across a story about one member of the partnership, Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas, in our sister publication, Creative Loafing/Charlotte (charlotte.creativeloafing.com/2003-01-29/news_cover.html.)

In a story about consultants overseeing the Mecklenburg County light rail and mass transit plan, reporter Tara Servatius wrote that Parsons Brinckerhoff and another firm "have stark histories of deceiving the public and government officials about the true costs of transit projects, and then benefiting directly from project costs overruns."

Chambers says when she asked for an audit for RTP's lavish fringe benefits, she received only check stubs and photocopies of payments.

"So," she told me, "that's why we're not passing the bill out quite yet."

Despite Chambers' bluster, Wall believes he can work with her to get MARTA's money bills passed this session.

Their teammwork has begun to click just as the ARC has created a new Regional Transit Planning Board that Wall believes will give MARTA new life.

"The only way we're going to get additional support from the state of Georgia is to get the 28 counties that make up the Atlanta [Metropolitan Statistical Area], not just Fulton and DeKalb counties, all clamoring for mass transit," he says. "That transit planning board gives me a platform that says this is more than just about MARTA, it's about the region. Without this board, I don't believe that mass transit in the area will receive any additional support."

He has great dreams for MARTA. "ARC is predicting that between now and 2025, another 6.5 million Yankees are moving down to Georgia. Can you imagine that? We've got 4 million [people] in the MSA now, and we expect another 6.5 million. That is just unbelievable. You know, you can hardly drive anywhere now.

"Mass transit is the key to making the Atlanta MSA work, the same as Philadelphia, New York or D.C. And it's going to require an investment and it's going to require leadership to build out the infrastructure to accommodate the people we have now and all those new folks moving in.

"And," he adds, "I believe that the resistance you see to MARTA is going to go away as people's quality of life gets worse and worse and worse."

Senior Editor Doug Monroe is a former traffic and transportation columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. You can reach him at doug.monroe@creativeloafing.com.

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