Monday, March 14, 2011

Fulton and DeKalb mayors to continue drumbeat for new transit agency

Posted By on Mon, Mar 14, 2011 at 9:33 AM

Last week, Mayor Kasim Reed made one of his closely watched Gold Dome visits to ask a special House and Senate committee for a small favor: Create a regional transit agency before next year's one-cent sales tax referendum to fund transportation projects.

It was the first public request on the issue we'd seen by the mayor, who in the past months had advised mayors and commissioners in Fulton and DeKalb counties who are pining for such an agency to first focus their efforts on passing the ballot measure. The one-cent sales tax, if passed, could raise billions of dollars over ten years in new funding for roads, bridges and transit projects.

Seated before the Transit Governance Study Commission, Reed urged lawmakers including House Majority Whip Ed Lindsey of Buckhead to at least pass legislation creating the agency — a bill's already been drafted — and fine-tune it next January prior to the referendum.

The mayor's obviously been hearing the same message as his colleagues: Fulton and DeKalb voters, already paying one penny to operate MARTA buses and trains, are unlikely to sign on for an additional penny in sales tax. And those voters' "yeas" are vital to the measure's passage. A regional transit agency — Reed said a cost-saving first step could be akin to an airline alliance — might help solve that pesky problem and create efficiencies.

You'd think such a initiative would have smooth sailing. A committee made up of metro Atlanta elected officials and transit officials — which Reed chaired — has already done the grunt work to decide how a regional transit agency might function. That committee — which includes many of the elected officials whose constituents would use the service — unanimously approved that framework, which Reed says is similar to Chicago's model. The Atlanta Regional Commission endorsed that action. And as we mentioned, a dense piece of legislation to make it happen has already been penned.

But no. Lindsey told CL that he thinks it's vital the transit agency be created before the 2012 vote — but it requires more study. What's more, he says, the General Assembly still needs to support the concept. Some complicated questions, including regional funding for transit, remain unanswered.

State Rep. Donna Sheldon, R-Dacula, the chair of the committee, says a regional transit agency isn't something that can be rushed through the Gold Dome. Even more so when crossover day — the 30th day of the legislative session when bills must have already passed either the House or Senate if they're to become law — nears. (State Planning Director Todd Long also expressed doubts that voters might nix the measure without a regional transit agency. He insisted that the list of road and transit projects, which he will vet, will most likely decide the tax's fate.)

With billions of dollars on the line — not to mention the possibility of finally getting out of traffic — Fulton and DeKalb politicos don't appear ready to wait. Before last week's meeting adjourned, Reed asked the panel for permission to continue pleading his case as the session continues. ARC Chairman Tad Leithead echoed that request. Today at noon, Fulton and DeKalb mayors will gather at the Gold Dome to — once again — to do just that. (Last we heard Reed had not signed on to appear at the event.)

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