The ATL, part 1

The ATL: Atlanta's answer to regional transit governance

At Seamless Bay Area, there’s one question we often find ourselves grappling with: What exactly do we mean when we say we want a “unified and world class transportation network”? The “world class” part is relatively easy to answer: more transit service at a higher quality, a useful and pleasurable customer experience, technologies that make travel easier, and so on. The “unified” part, less so. It implies a system of transit governance that can help deliver world class outcomes, but what kind of governance are we talking about? We’re not the first to consider how to manage transit at a regional level: from London to Toronto to Los Angeles, there are many models to choose from. How did these models come to be? What worked? What didn’t? And most importantly, what might make sense in the Bay Area? To help answer some of these questions, we’re launching a series of in-depth looks at regional transit governance around the world. We’ll consider history, major components, pluses and minuses, evidence for impact, and suitability to the Bay Area’s unique conditions. We’re kicking things off with our take on an exciting new development: regional transit governance for the Atlanta metropolitan region.

Highlights

  • After years of careful work by businesses, advocates and key politicians, the Georgia state legislature just passed a historic vote to give the Atlanta metro region a powerful planning, funding, construction and operations agency for transit.

  • This agency, “The ATL”, promises unified authority, cohesive and empowered planning, a common brand, improved connectivity among services, and potential new funding streams for transit expansion.

  • Threats to its success may come from metro counties who remain distrustful of “big city” transit, from the failure of the legislation to provide a steady funding stream, and from potential politicization of project choices.

  • Flawed or not, The ATL is a transformative institution for Georgia. Its existence is all the more remarkable given metro Atlanta’s long, unhappy history with funding and building regional transit.

Learning from regional transit governance around the world

We can’t do justice to a “unified and world class” vision for the Bay Area transportation network without considering what others have learned when trying to accomplish similar things elsewhere. Where better to start, then, but with the U.S.’s newest experiment in regional transit governance, “The ATL”. Created by the state legislature in March of this year, The ATL is a transformative institution, encompassing both transit governance -- planning, construction, operations and management -- for the entire Atlanta metro region as well as a funding framework to help build out the vision. It’s rare to be looking in detail at a new transit agency so close to its birth, so we’re dedicating two posts to this exciting development. In the first, we’ll look at how the agency came to be and just what it implies for transit outcomes in metro Atlanta. In the second instalment to follow, we’ll consider what lessons it might offer us here in the Bay Area.

The ATL in context

 While most people might think of MARTA, a close cousin to BART, as the image of transit in metro Atlanta, this is more the reality for most: a disconnected, sprawling network of infrequent buses and rundown infrastructure. Credit: Transportation for America

While most people might think of MARTA, a close cousin to BART, as the image of transit in metro Atlanta, this is more the reality for most: a disconnected, sprawling network of infrequent buses and rundown infrastructure. Credit: Transportation for America

Atlanta metro, a sprawling region of 5.8 million people with the city of Atlanta at its heart, has long struggled to provide, and fund, adequate transit service. MARTA, the state’s only fixed guideway transit system, carries around as many passengers a day as BART but has never received state funding, was originally backed by only 3 of the 5 metro Atlanta counties, and was never built out to match the regional vision: it’s been stuck at 48 miles of track for nearly 20 years, compared with BART’s 112 and growing. A poorly connected and intermittent web of buses and commuter coaches dominate the rest of regional transit, operated by a potpourri of county and city agencies. A 2014 report from the ASCE called out a network that was failing to meet the needs of people across the region, state and local agencies that appeared unable to “provide the necessary funding for meaningful transit”, and inefficiencies, frustration and confusion stemming from multiple overlapping and disconnected transit providers. The end result is widely shared misery: well over 60% of commute trips in Atlanta cross county lines, and in a metro area that frequently tops lists for inequality among large city regions, much of the suffering is experienced by those least able to bear it.

Journey to The ATL

Despite long awareness of the inadequacy of Atlanta’s regional transit infrastructure, repeated efforts over the years failed to line up voter support for transit expansion. Advocates were hampered by a complicated history and mixed performance on the part of the region’s preeminent operating agency, MARTA, as well as diverse politics across a sprawling metro area, and lackluster support at the state level. As recently as 2012, few would have envisaged much of a future for regional transit in Atlanta: a $8 billion ballot initiative for transit funding spectacularly failed to win support that year in any of Atlanta’s 10 metro counties. What changed?

Demographics helped set the stage. Since the failure of the “T-SPLOST” initiative in 2012, population continued to grow, putting more and more pressure on the highway infrastructure. The growth also skewed younger, with new residents in the metro core demanding better transit. If demographics provided context, businesses provided impetus. Big corporations, like State Farm and Mercedes Benz, were moving to locations in MARTA corridors, and other Fortune 500 companies looking to relocate were peppering state economic development officials with questions about transit. Simultaneously, large real estate interests were demonstrating the economic value of developments on or near transit, with high profile projects like the Atlanta Belt Line and the Ponce City Market. Business interests carry weight in Georgia politics.

 The Atlanta Beltline is a privately and publicly funded ribbon of parks and trails looping around Atlanta, that has attracted considerable investment in adjoining neighborhoods, including a condominium redevelopment of Old City Hall East. Credit: mikehipp / Flickr 

The Atlanta Beltline is a privately and publicly funded ribbon of parks and trails looping around Atlanta, that has attracted considerable investment in adjoining neighborhoods, including a condominium redevelopment of Old City Hall East. Credit: mikehipp / Flickr 

With demographic and economic pressure opening a window for action, there emerged key political actors and groups ready to exploit it. One of the architects of The ATL’s legislation, Georgia State Senator Brandon Beach (who once videotaped himself trying to cross Atlanta by transit, taking nearly 4 hours to complete what is normally an hour’s drive by car), helped bridge the regional and state political divide. Thought leadership by the regional planning organization, the ARC, helped move the debate along. Well-organized grassroots advocates like Advance Atlanta worked with Chambers of Commerce, MARTA, ARC, engineering companies and pretty much anyone with a stake in better transit, to organize support and lobby at the state level. Finally, in 2016, the wheels of the state legislature started to move: a year long study was launched to design the governance and funding structures. In March, this broad coalition made the legislation a reality.

The advocacy effort behind The ATL was organized, focused and effective. But what does this historic legislation actually empower The ATL to do, and what are people saying about its capabilities and limitations? We dug into the bills and the post-mortems to find out.

What will The ATL provide?

 The 10 special districts for The ATL carved out of the 13 county metro region. These districts will send citizen representatives to The ATL board, and are intended to match commuting corridors and encourage regional thinking. Credit: Atlanta Regional Commission 

The 10 special districts for The ATL carved out of the 13 county metro region. These districts will send citizen representatives to The ATL board, and are intended to match commuting corridors and encourage regional thinking. Credit: Atlanta Regional Commission 

A unified regional authority: The ATL is equipped legally and financially to “plan, design, acquire, construct, add to, extend, improve, equip, operate and maintain” transit systems and projects across metro Atlanta. The agency will also be the recipient and distributor of all federal transportation funds disbursed to the region. In practice, The ATL will likely do more planning, designing and constructing than equipping and operating (all agencies currently retain operational independence, for example), but the intent is clear: this is a powerful agency with broad geographic reach, an instrument for expanding the physical reach of transit networks in Atlanta, not just to coordinate planning or help administer federal funds.

Cohesive and empowered planning: The ATL will own and execute all transit planning and prioritization across 13 Atlanta metro counties, with emphasis on the “macro” (regional) scale but the sanction to go “micro” (get involved in planning by operators and local governments) if needed. The prioritization provision has teeth: counties can’t put projects on the ballot that The ATL hasn’t approved, and must opt-in to projects and their associated ballot measures and tax increases. The former gives The ATL real power to rationalize the projects that seek funding and ensure that they are relevant to or support regional intent; the latter, however, weakens its authority, and is likely a concession to more rural counties that have long resented being asked to pay for what they see as “urban” transportation services.

A common brand: The ATL, will provide a new, unified brand for all transit operations and riders in the Atlanta region. Beyond an explicit provision that all agencies will adopt a single logo and livery on new vehicles after 2019 and on all vehicles by 2023, there is little detail on what this might imply. But the old MARTA brand carries historical baggage, according to some, and a new identity might provide a fresh start. It's also likely that unifying agency color schemes, logos and communications platforms will improve the rider’s experience and the strength of transit’s identity in the region—not an insignificant factor in ridership.

Better connectivity: the legislation specifically directs the ATL to consider cost-effectively expanding existing systems, linking regional services, establishing multimodal stations, and coordinating schedules and methods of payment. Plenty of leeway is left to the eventual staff of The ATL. We do not know if “coordinating methods of payment” might mean a Clipper-like unified fare pass, or something lighter weight. But the explicit mention of so many important dimensions of connectivity and unified experience bodes well.

New financing structures for transit expansion: the metro region has always struggled to raise dependable funding for transit, so The ATL is understandably seen as a big deal: Atlanta’s 13 metro counties are now empowered to seek sales tax increases to finance the construction and operation of new transit systems. While many of those counties are unlikely to end up taxing themselves for transit, the legislation removes the bottleneck of state approval and opens up possibilities for new coalitions to raise the kinds of funds needed. In addition, the legislature threw in $100 million in state funding. Not a huge number given the region’s needs, but symbolic given the state’s extensive non-participation in transit funding, and past proscriptions against MARTA receiving any state dollars at all (a law that, conveniently, the new legislation also repeals). While historic and potentially empowering from a financial standpoint, The ATL legislation still doesn’t provide a dedicated source of funding for transit, something the backers had sought (they’d proposed a concessions tax and even a ride-hail fee), posing risks to future operations and maintenance.

Inclusive governance: The ATL’s governing commission will be chaired by the governor, and include the commissioners of Georgia’s Department of Transportation, the CEO of MARTA, the mayor and council president of Atlanta, chairs of select counties, a number of smaller city mayors, and citizen representatives from districts within the 13 county region. It’s a smart structure: The ATL is a state agency, and so needs state champions. With the City of Atlanta on board, the agency has the strongest regional advocates for better transit. MARTA can’t have been thrilled to have its regional pre-eminence threatened, and so it seems smart to bringing their governance into the fold. By giving the smaller and more regional counties and cities a voice, The ATL may reduce opposition from semi-rural communities. But while overtly political boards can deliver political wins, they can also deliver losses: new leadership in the city of Atlanta appears poised to change the projects that a previous ballot measure approved. The ATL also lacks formal representation from the business community, from transit and infrastructure professionals and from any number of other non-profit and community interests who could help build grassroots support as well as lend more technical perspectives.

The ATL: what did we learn?

The ATL would be a bold and far-sighted effort to rationalize transit for almost any major metro region in the U.S. Considering metro Atlanta’s long and contentious history of securing any sort of funding and approval for transit, and the particularly desperate needs of such a large region lacking a truly useful backbone transit network, The ATL is especially historic. But it’s not perfect. Much as previous visionary initiatives—starting with MARTA back in the 1960s—fell afoul of alleged racism, economic protectiveness and vicious state politics, this legislation has enough built-in weaknesses and caveats that there is no guarantee of major transit expansion and a better transit experience for metro Atlanta. But the way is clearer now than it has ever been, and for that we applaud the work of the many advocates, supporters and legislators in Georgia who got this done.

Stay tuned for Part 2 in our series on the ATL, in which we explore which elements of The ATL might be portable to the Bay Area, and reflect on what we share in challenges and opportunities to getting change enacted.