Metro Atlanta must find a way to solve its connectivity issues soon, or the region will become less attractive, both to businesses and residents. That was the consensus from a panel discussion this morning sponsored by the Council for Quality Growth. Panelists included Senator Brandon Beach, co-chair of the Joint Study Committee on Transportation, MARTA General Manager Keith Parker, Georgia DOT District 11 Board Member and former State Representative Jeff Lewis and Senate Transportation Chairman Steve Gooch. The panel was moderated by Michael L. Sullivan, Chairman of the Georgia Transportation Alliance.
According to Senator Beach, who also is Chairman of the North Fulton Community Improvement District, there are 900 high tech companies located along the Georgia 400 corridor north of I-285. While the region has been successful in attracting companies to relocate here, without transportation improvements, and especially an investment in transit, the effort in North Fulton will change from attracting new businesses to retaining the ones already there.
Beach pointed out a recent survey of Google employees that showed 50% of its millennial workers do not own cars, preferring to take transit to work. The availability of this younger, high-tech workforce is part of what attracts companies to relocate to the area. Without transportation options, these younger workers may locate elsewhere, effectively taking their jobs with them. Beach pointed out that the presence of MARTA in Dunwoody was what prompted State Farm to expand in the Perimeter Center area.
Lewis agreed with Beach, saying there needs to be a change in transportation models from what was used in the 20th century. Claiming that “Millennials will drive with their smartphones,” he said technology must make up a good part of the solution to solving transportation issues.
A solution to fund transportation improvements, not only for increased transit, but to maintain road and bridge infrastructure, is the goal of the Transportation Infrastructure Funding Committee. While an increase in the gasoline tax is being touted as on the table, panelists appeared to be casting a wider net to find the additional approximately $1 billion annually that is needed to maintain and improve the Peach State’s transportation infrastructure. Senator Gooch indicated the study committee was looking at something “big and bold” to fund transportation statewide. In addition to an increase in the gas tax, there might also be some sort of general sales tax, and some way of dealing with the increasing number of electric vehicles on the road that do not pay the gas tax.
Lewis agreed, saying the committee needed to be aggressive in combining sources of transportation funding, including tolls, user fees and federal funding. That federal funding, which currently amounts to about $1.2 billion per year, could come to a halt in May when an extension of the current federal highway bill runs out. The DOT is reluctant to proceed on any projects that are dependent on that federal funding stream, since no one knows what the new Congress will do about a new one. Lewis thought that a transportation funding solution that is less dependent on federal money would ultimately prove to be a better choice.
For his part, MARTA General Manager Keith Parker pointed to last week’s vote to expand the system’s footprint to Clayton County, the largest expansion since the mid 70x. One of Parker’s goals since taking the helm of the agency has been to improve the agency’s image. Parker said that he was trying to improve the perception of the agency by increasing ridership and improving MARTA’s financial picture, in essence taking away arguments about why people shouldn’t invest in it. By adopting a motto of “Routine Excellence,” he hopes people will come to realize that MARTA means jobs.
Most of those in the audience, which largely consisted of people involved with the area’s Community Improvement Districts, people with interests in transportation, and elected officials, were receptive to the arguments made by the panel. One of those in attendance agreed that the 2015 legislative session would be the best time politically to come up with a long term revenue stream to fund the state’s transportation needs. The study committee will issue its report at the end of the month. Then, it’s up to the legislature.