The Georgia Department of Transportation will be in charge of "delivering" all the road projects. The Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, or GRTA, will do the same for roughly $3 billion of rail and bus lines that would be built with revenues from the 1-percent sales tax.
The latter decision caused me and other transit advocates some concern, as I expressed in a recent column.
To understand why, let's do a quick background on GRTA. Created in 1999 by the General Assembly, the state agency was envisioned by then-Gov. Roy Barnes as a regional force that would fight metro Atlanta's sprawl and congestion. That included building out Barnes' vision of commuter rail network that would spider throughout the metro counties.
But when Sonny Perdue took over the governor's mansion, he scuttled his predecessor's plans. Since then, the agency's largely focused on operating "luxury coaches" that shuttle suburbanites into and out of downtown. In addition, the agency's board is appointed by the governor, who, along with state lawmakers, have paid little attention to the important role that transit does - and could - play in metro Atlanta. (Let's not forget that transit - particularly MARTA - has been used by state lawmakers as a political football in the past.)
Simply put, the state's proven that it can't be trusted when it comes to building rail or supporting transit. And GRTA, which faces its own funding challenges in the years ahead, doesn't have as much experience in laying track and running massive systems as, for example, MARTA. (That's not a swipe at the GRTA's staff, who help a lot of people get to work.)
How do we know that GRTA a.) is up to handle the complex job of building rail and bus lines worth billions of dollars and b.) won't play politics with the transit projects? I spoke with Kirk R. Fjelstul, GRTA's staff attorney and deputy executive director, earlier this month about those concerns.
ON BUILDING AND OPERATING THE TRANSIT: "It's not our goal to deliver the projects ourselves," he says. "We are the program manager. The only project that we are certain we would deliver is the funds for Xpress operations, which we operate already."
The rest of the transit projects - transit along the Atlanta Beltline east and southwest segments and into Midtown, MARTA rail between Lindbergh and Emory University, and so on - would most likely be contracted out to another entity or local government. In such a case, GRTA would still be considered the project manager, but officials who are more familiar with the project would oversee its construction and implementation.
None of those contracting decisions have been made yet, Fjelstul says. He adds that GRTA has worked closely and communicated with local governments and entities during the last year. A GRTA spokesman also adds that there would be no restrictions regarding contracting with entities that employ union members - MARTA, for example.
ON POLITICS: "All I can tell you is in the discussions for the last year-and-a-half with our board members, staff in whichever governor's adminsitration, there's not been one single mention of anything political," Fjelstul says. "The heat and light has been focused directly to get things done on time, on budget and within scope. And that's the only filter we've evaluated anything through."
He adds: "Our charge in the legislation is pretty clear that our role is to deliver on time and on budget based on what the local governments gave us. We're going to get judged, just like the local sponsors, based on the delivery of the projects."
Fjelstul's right. Should anyone want to play politics with the project list, be it by delaying the approval of funding, pitting the delivery of one project over another, or any other type of shenanigans, they'll be called out. Local governments will make a very public stink and the media will be delighted to quote irritated officials at length. Other transportation officials, speaking off the record with CL, agree with this viewpoint. The region - and the state - has too much riding on this tax, which, if approved, will be judged at every turn. Failure to follow the rules will give opponents ample ammunition to blast future tax proposals.
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