How big should a regional transit system be?

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While there was agreement on the need for a regional transit system to operate train and bus service in Metro Atlanta, opinions differed Thursday on just how many counties should be included in that system.

That was the general slant of discussion as a special legislative committee continued its work on crafting a recommendation to Gov. Nathan Deal as to how a regional transit system should be operated and which state agency should be in charge of it.

Deal appointed the transit governance committee in early September and asked the members to develop a plan for coordinating the current mishmash of systems in advance of next year’s referendums on a one-cent local sales tax for transportation infrastructure projects.

Committee members heard testimony Thursday from three metro area mayors who have been deeply involved in advocating public transit:  Jere Wood of Roswell, Mark Matthews of Kennesaw and Eric Clarkson of Chamblee.

The mayors, as expected, gave their full endorsement to the proposal for a regional transit system.

“We could have a real game-changer with a regional transit authority,” Wood said.  “I think this is a real opportunity for the region and the state.”

The mayors said a regional transit system should be confined, at least initially, to the five counties where support for the system is a certainty:  Fulton and DeKalb, which are already part of the MARTA rail system, and Cobb, Gwinnett and Clayton.

If other metro counties ask for state or federal funding for transit purposes, that funding should be contingent on those counties agreeing to join the regional transit system as well, Wood said.

Some legislators on the study committee thought the regional transit agency should include more than just those five counties.

Rep. Billy Mitchell (D-Stone Mountain) noted that in the 1971 referendums that created MARTA, only Fulton and DeKalb voters approved joining the transit system.  If more counties had been included in MARTA from the outset, the region’s transit facilities would be in much better shape today, Mitchell contended.

“We can all agree that decisions made by the voters (in 1971) in hindsight were shortsighted decisions,” said Rep. Mike Jacobs (R-Atlanta).  “We should make sure the regional system covers the entire footprint of Metro Atlanta and brings it all under one roof.”

“I’m fine with that if you can get it done,” Wood responded.  “I can support your decision, whether it’s five counties or 10 counties – we’re just trying to do something that’s doable.”

“We need to be realistic,” Clarkson said.  “We’ve really come to a consensus on five counties.”

The study committee’s recommendations to Deal will include the selection of a state agency where the regional transit system would be housed.

That agency could be the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA), which offers bus service in several suburban counties, the state Department of Transportation, or the State Road & Tollway Authority.

© 2011 by The Georgia Report

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Tags: Billy Mitchell , Jere Wood , MARTA , mass transit , Mike Jacobs , Nathan Deal