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'Planning board transformed transit issue'

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

One of the biggest accomplishments of the regional Transportation Planning Board might be its own existence.

As the organization approaches its prearranged "sunset" at the end of the year, some see the mere fact there is a TPB as a significant, transformative accomplishment. According to three who have worked on, and with, the board, the TPB showed it was possible to end the Balkanization of transportation, bringing together cities, counties and state agencies, getting them to think of transportation as regional issue -- not just a problem each government tries to tackle alone.

"A lot of people said 'It will never work: They'll never gel together as a board and people will never look beyond their borders,'" recalled Cheryl King, TPB staff director. "But we had to work together and look at the bigger picture. We've got to solve this problem as a region, and now we're functioning as a region."

The board was formed in 2006 to come up with a vision for a regional transportation system. It was a "stand-alone agency," created out of three other agencies, according to Michael Halicki, a consultant who has worked extensively with the board. The TPB was formed by an agreement of the Atlanta Regional Commission, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority.

"In essence, the different agencies gave up funding to support the TPB," Halicki said. "You had three agencies that weren't able to put the ball through the hoop, so to speak, and they empowered this stand-alone agency."

The board, as it was formed, could have been a multi-agency study group, but it ended up becoming a "regional broker," Halicki said.

The board is chaired by Eldrin Bell, the Clayton County Board of Commissioners chairman. It is made up of representatives from 10 counties, the city of Atlanta, GDOT, GRTA, MARTA and appointees of Gov. Sonny Perdue.

Bell said he was sought out for the chairmanship by Sam Olen, the Republican chairman of the Cobb County Board of Commissioners and the chairman of the ARC. Bell said he didn't have much history with Olen, at the time, but recognized the possibilities in a cooperation between a Democrat from the Southside and a Republican from the Northside. By de-politicizing transit and using the "art of inclusion," the issue could be turned into a regional cause, Bell said.

"We created a cohesive group of leaders from across the region to champion the cause," Bell said, "to the point that we all consider ourselves, now, as participants at the table ... What has been my swan song, what has helped me the most, is the art of inclusion. Everyone has a seat at the table. I had not seen that model before and I'm grateful to those people, who were the purveyors of the regional model."

Bell said he initially became interested in transportation issues after his election as commission chairman, because he wanted to bring commuter rail to Clayton County. He quickly realized "the only way we could get caught up in transit in Georgia is to work together.

"The TPB has led the way, in making transportation a regional issue, through all the difficulties, through all three levels of government," Bell said. "There was a great deal of suspicion! A great deal. The region does not want to be told what to do by the state, and it's based on over-politicizing the decision-making process. There's a real fear that, because of political considerations, more will be given to this section, versus the other section. But we, at the TPB, were looking at it in terms of 'What is required?' What is required to bring everyone in and bring this region together?"

The planning board approved a region-wide transportation plan last week, calling it the blueprint for transportation in the metro Atlanta area. But, as the board weighs recommendations for how the plan should be implemented, and which agency should govern the plan, there's a strong feeling among at least some board members that the board, itself, should be a blueprint for governance.

"A lot of areas have struggled with the governance issues, where cities are less important and regions are more important," Halicki said. "There's a long tradition of the Balkanization of transit services. We're not looking for an overarching, transit committee appointed by the governor, or anything like that, but a regional broker."

Turning transportation into a regional project, one not solely owned by Atlanta, or the state government, will, it is hoped, make projects like commuter rail possible. But beyond easing suspicions and ending rivalries, thinking regionally could also have an impact on funding, the most intractable challenge.

Where some have called for the state to bear the entire financial burden of transportation -- and operating the southern stretch of a suburban commuter rail was once set to be billed solely to Clayton County -- regional funding measures might involve a multi-jurisdictional sales tax.

As the TPB studies possible funding mechanisms and ways to govern project implementation, it can be expected to rely heavily on the regional model as a solution.

"Governance by inclusion is critical," Bell said. "That is critical, and I, for one, believe we must work with a regional model, and that model must mirror the TPB."