When we began this year many were unsure just how much chaos we would see in the 2018 Georgia legislative session. Atlanta is on the shortlist of potential home cities for Amazon’s second headquarters, so an appeal to moderation would be a sensible choice for legislators. However, 2018 is an election year with several candidates needing to out-maneuver their party rivals with big, partisan theatrics. Underlying these current events, is the ever-growing film industry in Georgia and the state’s constant desire to host large sporting events.
For a short time it looked as if the legislative session was going to unravel into a spectacular North Carolina-esque meltdown of partisan showmanship. Not only did we have a divisive anti-gay/pro-religion adoption bill pass the Senate, but our lieutenant governor publicly threatened one of Georgia’s largest corporations for not giving preferential treatment to a private organization of his liking. Both stories made national headlines for several days, which resulted in members of the film industry calling for potential boycotts of Georgia, Delta being courted by other states, and news leaking that Amazon had possibly chosen Northern Virginia as the site of its second headquarters. Going slightly under the radar is a bill that would reduce voting time in Atlanta, an overwhelmingly Democratic city.
Transit Breaks Through the Absurdity
Regional transportation has been one bright spot in an otherwise chaotic and absurd session. Both the Senate and House passed similar bills, HB-930 and SB-386, that could dramatically improve transit in the metro area. The bills create a regional transportation authority called the Atlanta-region Transit Link Commission, or The ATL Commission, that would be responsible for approving and implementing transit projects.
The regional transit system would be re-branded as “The ATL”, though MARTA would still operate heavy rail service. Residents in the 13-county metro area would vote to join the system and raise their sales tax by up to 1 percent to pay for projects. HB-930 calls for an additional tax of 50 cents on ride-sharing services with the funds going to transit projects. Officials from each participating county would then join the ATL Commission. The two bills now must be reconciled in a joint committee, passed again by both houses, and signed by the governor.
Brandon Beach, the sponsor of SB-386, believes many suburbanites have negative views of MARTA, so re-branding it could potentially attract more support for transit. While calling our system “The ATL” is slightly cringe-worthy, it’s a small price to pay for greater regional support. Perhaps we could come up with some more creative names for individual transit lines.
Fact: Colorado has the best bus line names. pic.twitter.com/OeHoDZdpfV
— Dan Malouff (@beyonddc) March 12, 2018
It’s widely expected that Fulton, Dekalb, Clayton, and Gwinnett will vote to join, though it’s unclear whether Cobb will follow suit. Voters in Cobb County have long held negative views of transit and many still remain reluctant to adopt a form of transportation other than cars. The latest point of contention for Cobb officials is that the ATL Commission would ultimately decide which regional projects get approved. Each county would contribute tax revenue to regional transit and create a list of projects, but the commission would ultimately decide how to use the revenue. Not only is this similar to how road projects get funded and approved, but it makes sense given that we’re creating a regional transit system not a Cobb transit system or a Dekalb transit system.
While most of Cobb County is largely opposed to transit, southern Cobb County is more welcoming. To resolve this potential roadblock, House Bill 930 carved out a southern portion of Cobb County to be included in the bill while excluding the rest of the county. When no one could agree on the boundaries of that southern portion, the plan was scrapped leaving all of Cobb County in the bill. The concern is that opposition from Cobb County as a whole prevents the creation of needed transit connections in southern Cobb and calls into question the viability of the entire plan.
An Unprecedented Grand Coalition of Transit Enthusiasm
The uncertainty over whether Cobb voters will agree to the plan has made reconciling the two bills more difficult. We’ve seen this situation several times over the past decade: special interest groups or anti-transit officials in pockets of the northern suburbs effectively kill a largely popular transit bill. While the efficacy of a regional transportation system is certainly hurt by not having Cobb County participate, the rest of the metro area shouldn’t be held hostage by an increasingly small number of stubborn, anti-transit advocates.
We’ve come a long way on transit in this state. Over the past several years the issue has moved from an Atlanta-focused, mostly Democratic issue to a bipartisan one supported by both urban and rural politicians. House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge, has emerged as a strong advocate for transit funding and HB-930 is sponsored by Kevin Tanner, a Republican from Dawsonville. The bill is co-sponsored by Democrats from Decatur and Columbus, Republicans from Cartersville, Valdosta, and Brookhaven, and is supported by the Georgia Conservancy. Such a political and geographical coalition would have been unimaginable ten years ago.
In an age of crippling partisanship, the Senate and House bills passed with a collective vote of 213 to 17. It would be a shame if a few people in one county were able to stop the momentum of a grand coalition working to diversify transportation choices and build a stronger Georgia economy. Let’s get something done.
Please see our 2017-2018 Georgia Legislative Session page for updates on other relevant bills