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Wanted: Regional transportation governance

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Though survey results show significant support for public transportation, the public is pretty ambivalent toward transportation agencies.

The Transportation Planning Board's recently released survey shows that while more than 80 percent of people in the Atlanta area say investment in public transportation systems should be increased, the same public can only shrug when asked who should implement and oversee a regional transportation system.

The surveyors' asked: "If a regional transit system were funded through a referendum, which of the following groups would you trust most to spend those funds and oversee that system -- Georgia Department of Transportation, the Atlanta Regional Commission, MARTA, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, or a new group created for that purpose?"

More than 30 percent of the 4,123 registered voters said they would like to see some new group. Almost 20 percent responded that they didn't know.

The survey showed some support for the GDOT, with 23 percent saying they would most trust GDOT to oversee a transportation system, and the survey showed 12 percent trusted MARTA and 11 percent trusted GRTA.

A mere five percent said they'd like to see the ARC overseeing a regional transportation system.

The company conducting the survey, Ayres, McHenry & Associates, Inc., presented the information to the TPB with the interpretation that "the public provides no strong direction in terms of a preferred group to administer new transportation funds."

Cheryl King, the TPB's executive director, said the ambivalence shown in the survey supports the board's contention that the public overwhelmingly wants public transportation.

"They don't care what name is on the side," King said, "they just want it to be clean, safe and reliable."

TPB Chairman Eldrin Bell made the same point, responding to the question of public ambivalence toward transportation organizations, but Bell also sees the statistics as supporting a new organization to oversee a system.

"I think the voters think a regional transportation system is so important they want it to stand on its own," Bell said.

Both King and Bell seemed willing to consider the interpretation that the statistics show an absence of leadership, but shied away from criticizing GDOT, ARC, MARTA or GRTA.

The TPB is a joint venture of the ARC, MARTA and GRTA, created in 2006, but it also exists to fill a void, and was created by those larger agencies "as a result of the lack of a clear institutional and financing structure to expand transit."

There has been some talk in some circles of transportation planners about re-orienting the TPB, expanding its scope from planning to implementation and oversight of a regional transportation system. Right now, the TPB is finishing up a nine-stop tour, touting it's 30-year regional transportation plan, and the TPB is slated to offer up the best plan and disband at the end of the year.

At the board's meeting on Thursday, Bell said that the largest, remaining unaddressed issue is governance.

"Out next and most important task," he said to the board of directors, "is coming together for a very important discussion on governance."

When visiting Charlotte, N.C., to review that city's successful implementation of the beginnings of a regional transportation system, last month, Bell criticized the city's governance arrangement. Their transportation system is run by a body which is a sort of tenuous, power-sharing partnership between the city and the county, built on lax annexation laws and a succession of multi-jurisdicitonal agreements.

Both Charlotte's economic planner and its transportation system's chief executive officer told the TPB delegation of planners that governance is the most difficult part of regional transportation plan.

That highlights the sometimes forgotten reality that even elegant plans are only as good as their implementation.