Flawed transit governance proposal unfair to MARTA counties and Atlanta region

By Maria Saporta

How disappointing.

After months and months of study, the Transit Governance Task Force has come up with recommendations that are unacceptable — especially for residents in Fulton and DeKalb counties who have been investing in MARTA for the past four decades.

One of the most insulting elements of the proposed legislation could be described as blackmail.

To free MARTA from the state-imposed restriction that 50 percent of its sales tax revenues be spent on capital and 50 percent be spent on operations, MARTA basically would have to turn over most of its authorities to the newly-created Transit Governance Council. For the record, no other transit agency in the nation is saddled with such an unworkable rule.

MARTA represents a $6 billion investment in our region. Why should MARTA turn over its Constitutional powers to a state-controlled entity and give up its designation as the transit authority that can receive federal funding in the region.

According to folks close to MARTA, relaxing the 50/50 rule would give MARTA flexibility over how it spends its sales tax revenue (and it is expected that currently would be worth about $20 million a year for the transit agency).

It is inconceivable that MARTA could or should give up most of its powers and its $6 billion investment in return for getting flexibility in how it can spend the MARTA sales tax collected in the City of Atlanta, and Fulton and DeKalb counties.

Fortunately, several people who have been integral to the transit governance discussions have said freeing MARTA of the 50/50 rule should be “decoupled” from any transit governance legislation. They believe that should pass no matter what.

But the problems with the draft legislation don’t stop there.

First of all, in the name of not starting another transportation agency, the draft bill sets up another bureaucracy.

The 35-member Transit Governance Council (which would have its own director) would be an arm of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority.

GRTA would go from having all its 15 members appointed by the governor to having nine appointed by the governor, three appointed by the lieutenant governor and three appointed by the Speaker of the House.

That means that all of 15 of GRTA’s board members would continue being appointed by leaders of state that provides virtually no funding for transit operations in metro Atlanta or anywhere else in the state.

The basic issue is fairness. There should be a “pay to play” understanding. The only entities that should be calling the shots on transit should be the ones paying for it.

Interestingly enough, the proposed Transit Governance Council is strikingly similar to the Atlanta Regional Commission’s proposal for transit governance — but with several deal-breaking exceptions.

First, ARC’s Regional Transit Committee called for proportional voting. Each vote would be weighed by population and investment in transit. After all, that’s only fair.

The state draft legislation calls for the commission chairs for 13 counties as well as one mayor from each county would serve on the council. The mayor of Atlanta also would have a seat at the table. (For the record, most of the remaining members would be appointed by state officials).

That means that Fulton County (with a population of 1.01 million) and DeKalb County (with a population of 740,000) would have the same representation as Douglas County (with a population of 92,174). Now is that fair?

Overlay that with Fulton and DeKalb having contributed a penny sales tax for MARTA for the past 40 years while a Douglas County has yet to make a significant investment in transit, and it’s even more unfair.

The draft legislation also would call for both the Transit Governance Council and the state-controlled GRTA to hire a transit director. That not only sounds unworkable, but also unfair. Why should the state have the power to name a transit director when it puts no money in transit.

Also, GRTA could veto anything passed by the Transit Governance Council with a two-thirds vote (basically all the governor’s appointees). Again, is that fair?

There are many other problem areas in the draft legislation. It could diminish ARC’s regional planning role. It does not capitalize on the transit expertise that exists at MARTA (which carries more than 90 percent of all transit riders in metro Atlanta).

There appears to be no guarantee that the transit director would be an experienced professional leaving open the possibility of that position being filled by a political appointee. (Think about what’s happened to the Georgia Department of Transportation over the last several years).

So here we are, six months away from asking voters to pass another penny sales tax for transportation in the region, and we have a proposed transit governance bill that is so flawed that several people said it should die a natural death.

Maybe it still can be salvaged, but it would need to be overhauled.

First of all, MARTA should be given total flexibility on how its spends its own money (and that freedom should not be tied to transit governance).

The Transit Governing Council should have proportional voting based on population and transit investment. That way, if the state wants to call some of the shots, it would need to start paying its fair share for transit.

If the Council were to be empowered, then there would be no need for GRTA. The residual functions that it would have could easily be given to GDOT, ARC and the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.

Also, a transit governance bill could give MARTA the ability to contract with other counties in the region to build out rail projects. It already can contract with counties to provide bus service.

The bottom line is that this proposed legislation should not pass in its current flawed state. The metro area would be better off with no regional transit entity than one that could be viewed as a state takeover of our urban transit systems.

We shouldn’t move forward unless we can do it right — once and for all.

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25 comments
SteveBrown
SteveBrown

Bruce in Cobb County - Actually, at the time MARTA was passed in DeKalb, there was not a majority minority population or even close. We were told that MARTA needed to pass because poor people needed to get to their jobs.

I thought it astounding that the citizens of South DeKalb had been paying the MARTA tax for decades and the RTR decides to pass them by in lieu of a $1.5 billion train to Cumberland/Cobb (Tad Leithead, ARC Chairman happens to have a financial interest there).

I agree that the Beltline has nothing to do with traffic congestion and it does not belong on the list.

The main problem with MARTA is long-term funding. They are billions in the hole now and that problem will get markedly worse.

Bruce in Cobb County
Bruce in Cobb County

Great article, Maria.

In answer to your question, nobody's listening because corporate media are not interested in educating the public about the issue. The only reporting I've seen in corporate TV and print say that TIA is about providing better transit for everybody, will create lots of jobs, ease traffic congestion and deserves to pass, end of story. What do you expect? After all, the owners of media are the same people who bankroll the careers of the politicians responsible for racist boondoggles like TIA.

Yes, I said racist. Fulton and Dekalb have large black populations, and when MARTA was initiated, outlying counties wanted to prevent black folks from riding trains or buses out to Cobb (where I live) or Cherokee or Clayton. Race has always been behind the unwillingness to allow MARTA to control its own funding, behind its being the only transit agency in the nation that gets no state funding, and behind the relentless media campaign waged by all the TV stations to make people thing MARTA is a kind of urban jungle, unsafe at any time or speed.

Race is inescapably among the reasons that assuming control over MARTA by county officials in jurisdictions that did not invest in it over the last generation is even remotely palatable.

But from where we are now, as the article points out, the black politicians of Dekalb and Fulton counties, including the mayor, state legislators, and even members of Congress (who really ought to have something to say about MARTA, which their constituents taxed themselves for decades to build and operate and will now be stripped of the ability to receive federal funds) are also complicit if they do not actively oppose this anti-democratic measure.

Even inside Atlanta, the distribution of TIA funds is essentially a bailout for the BeltLine, which had no transit funding of its own, the lion's share going to fund a rail line from Lindbergh to Emory, and a couple of streetcar lines from gentrified Auburn Avenue to Centennial Park and downtown to the gentrifying West End, when people in south Fulton and South Dekalb don't even have adequate bus service. They may as well be Jim Crow streetcars.....

Going AWOC
Going AWOC

I gave up my car almost 2 years ago and am Going AWOC...ATLANTA WIthOut A CAR! I wanted to see if it is possible to live in our fair city, car less. I learned you can. And I am not alone. I live in Midtown, where there is development density and community connectivity so I can live without a car.

So, as a frequent, almost daily rider of MARTA (and I wonder if those responding ever ride it) I not only rely on the services but see how many of our citizens use it. When the fare went up, $5.00 for a round trip to work, many did not have choices but to do with less. That was a hardship for so many. I know, I asked my fellow riders about it.

I realize this is not a debate on whether to have MARTA or not, It is on the funding of the service, but the comment of "CLOSE IT DOWN, " by middleground, gets my hackles up. REALLY? Do you think anything you do in your day will be the same if MARTA goes away? Enough energy on that small minded opinion.

When the debates about MARTA come up, I am struck with how many sit back and arm chair quarterback, never having relied on MARTA for service. We have riders who have 3 legs in their trip just to get to work; they are the ones who we should be listening to, and making sure we accomodate with rates and fares, because if they can't afford to get to work, our city shuts down; forget snow storm; that will be nothing compared to how paralyzed we will be.

You depend on MARTA even if you are someone who never gets on the train! SO, let's get her funded, fast, because I like when our community functions and so do you! .

SteveBrown
SteveBrown

We will be voting on a TIA plan that uses half of the funding for mass transit projects that 95 percent of our commuters chose not to use … and the ridership numbers continue to drop. Does this make sense?

Our current mass transit system is billions of dollars in red ink now, is it really a smart idea to take something that is that broken and make it bigger?

No one at the regional or state level will tell us how we are going to pay for the exorbitant costs of expanded maintenance and operations for the billions of dollars of new transit. Unless the state is going pay for it, the only way to handle it is through a permanent regional sales tax. Do we want a permanent regional sales tax? If you think you've got bureaucracy now, you've got a huge surprise coming!

middleground
middleground

TSPLOSTS is really just a way to fund Marta. You vote yes and you could be really looking at wasting more of your money.

middleground
middleground

I don't think anybody wants to take over your urban transportation/Marta. We have wasted enough resources on Marta. The system has been underfunded for so long that its not worth much.

Close it down and allow society to find their own solutions............Marta is an example of what doesn't work.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

"The Transit Governing Council should have proportional voting based on population and transit investment. That way, if the state wants to call some of the shots, it would need to start paying its fair share for transit."

That's another thing, this Republican-dominated state government, while having to appear that it is doing something really big to the suburban political moderates in the party by being seen as making moves to take over control governance of MARTA from what is negatively-viewed by OTP suburbanites as incompetent and corrupt Intown factions in the City of Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb Counties, also has to appear to the OTP fiscally and socially ultraconservative factions of the Republican base that it is not raising taxes or spending money in any way to fund what the Tea Partiers and anti-government contingents of the party view as wasteful spending on public transportation and rail transit, which is also viewed by many in the very vocal ultraconservative base of the GOP to be something akin to a plot to force communism on Americans who cherish freedom, independence and libertarian values in the form of their personal vehicles. I know that it sounds crazy, but these are all of the wildly diverse political forces that are driving transportation policy in this state at the moment.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

The state, specifically the Governor's office and some higher-ups in state government, DO want this effort to be viewed as a takeover of urban transit systems in the five-county core of Metro Atlanta, especially to suburban political moderates (those who some might call R.I.N.O.s) in Cobb (where Gov. Deal narrowly lost the vote to Karen Handel in the 2010 G.O.P. Gubernatorial Primary) and Gwinnett (where Gov. Deal won more votes than in any other Georgia county in both the primary and the general election in '10) so that he can look like he is at least doing something to address transportation issues to those suburban moderates who make up a very sizable chunk of GOP voters in statewide elections and can even look like he is doing much more than his precessor, Sonny-Do (nothing) Perdue, who was viewed as doing absolutely nothing on transportation and crippling traffic congestion during a period of explosive (and crushing) population growth.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

"The bottom line is that this proposed legislation should not pass in its current flawed state. The metro area would be better off with no regional transit entity than one that could be viewed as a state takeover of our urban transit systems."

But that's the thing, the state IS trying to move towards taking control of urban transit systems, most notably those in Clayton (the dormant C-Tran), Cobb (CCT), Gwinnett (GCT) and, of course, MARTA. There's a sense of increasing panic within state transportation planning circles (those that are still functional) that congestion is about to become even more unbearable and worse than now with the dramatically increased amount of freight truck traffic that will generated by the coming expansion of the Port of Savannah which has the potential to make Interstates 75 (OTP in Henry and Cobb Counties) and 285 (the West Leg) completely impassable during peak hours.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

"Also, a transit governance bill could give MARTA the ability to contract with other counties in the region to build out rail projects. It already can contract with counties to provide bus service."

That's a non-starter outside of Fulton & DeKalb Counties. I can tell you firsthand that there is A LOT of hostility to being directly connected to MARTA is any way, shape or form, especially in farther outlying ultraconservative suburban/exurban countries like Cherokee and Fayette. In Cobb and Gwinnett the issue is split with just under 50% supporting being connected directly to MARTA in those powerhouse core metro suburban counties, though it should noted that support for increase in transit options is at about two-thirds of the population in Gwinnett and about 60% in Cobb and increasing in both counties as congestion has grown into what is often crippling gridlock on a daily basis. There is still a very vocal, yet decreasing, contingent in Gwinnett and Cobb Counties that is firmly opposed to any expansion of transit even in the face of worsening congestion and gridlock. People in Gwinnett and Cobb generally want increased transit options that don't exist now, there just is not necessarily an overwhelming amount of support to have MARTA service or be directly connected to MARTA within those counties as there is much hostility towards MARTA in those areas.

DougAlexander
DougAlexander

@eagle23 -- sorry, but you don't get to vote on this. This proposal, thou engendered by the TSPOLST effort, is not a part of it. This is the legislature's call.

As for fairness, I'm afraid, as Forrest Gump might say, fairness is as fairness does. The voters of Fulton and DeKalb have little in the way of any clout in the Legislature because we have little in the way of Republican representation there. There are only an handful of "effective" Democrats under the Dome these days -- and right now they do not represent either of these two counties. If Sen. Stoner can get re-elected in his new district, that at least will change, but for now there are no Fulton or DeKalb representatives who can change the trajectory of this or any other proposal. What is a "non-starter" for you, Maria, is being hailed as a new day throughout the rest of the state (and in not a few corners of Fulton and DeKalb, I might add.)

dbailey67
dbailey67

Maria,

I agree with everything you've written here. No more bureaucracy and certainly our current governor has shown he's political to the core and is not working for what's best for Georgia.

So - how do we stop this trainwreck?

eagle23
eagle23

I agree with the column over all. If this is the "best" they can do I'll vote against it in July. It isn't the "best"...not even close.

I disagree that MARTA should discontinue all "unprofitable" routes (not wholesale, anyway), only because for some that is their only way to/from work. For me, it's part of what government is supposed to do and what private industry is not expected to do.

I also hope the AJC gets hold of this and shows the flaws. I know they've backed the sales tax increase, but this is not the way to go.

Steveland
Steveland

Maria Saporta

So why is no one listening. I'm soooo tired on politics and the curruption that follows. It's always about themselves and their friends. Listen MARTA has been sponsored by two counties and no one in suburbia wanted anything to do with it. All people voting in DeKalb and Fulton counties should reject this and stop all unprofitable routes. Only when (stuff) hits the fan will anyone respond to the unfairness. When I75 , GA400, I85 and I20 have toll road going both ways will anyone do anything.

ScottNAtlanta
ScottNAtlanta

@SteveBrown

In that vein of argument...I pay a big chunk of my property taxes to the school system. I dont have children and will never utilize that money. Under your rationale I should be allowed to just not pay it. Problem with that argument is that we all eventually benefit from a strong school system as we all would benefit from a strong regional public transit system...saying I dont use it so I dont want to contribute is short sighted at best. Fayette Co might be far from Atlanta, but my guess is so goes Atlanta...so goes Fayette Co and the rest of the state. We need to think of these things as investments, and as such they should be held to a very high standard. I dont think MARTA could possibly have more scrutiny than its already had

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

MARTA actually does work, much better than it is given credit for as MARTA has a daily ridership of over 480,000 per day which is A LOT of vehicles taken off of the roads in a town with very limited road capacity and congestion, automobile dependency and emissions/air pollution problems that are well-documented. If MARTA did not exist, the congestion and pollution problems in Atlanta would be even worse than it already notoriously is. MARTA also makes a great core backbone of any potential larger regional transit initiative if utilized properly as the Atlanta Region has likely maxed-out on freeway building capacity.

transit junkie
transit junkie

This is a message from the Last Ddemocrat with the Least knowlwdge of transit issues.

What a kook

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

@dbailey67

"So - how do we stop this trainwreck?"

Honestly, I'm not all that sure that you can at this point as there is increasing poltical pressure from suburban political moderates with miserable commutes on I-75 N&S, I-85 N, I-20 E&W and 400 N on the state to do something drastic on traffic congestion, gridlock and transportation mobility after years of continued inaction and ignorance of the issue. Most of the scenarios involved at this point from a regional and state point-of-view involve Intowners in Fulton and DeKalb Counties losing control over what is now known as MARTA at the behest of disgrunted commuters in Gwinnett, Cobb and North Fulton Counties where commutes towards the city are the absolute worst and there is a noticeable lack of transit options for commuters. The only thing that Intowners can do is play their hand within what will be most certainly be a continuing push by the state and the region to overhaul MARTA from a two-county transit agency to a five-county or more transit agency by the increasing minimization of those in Fulton and DeKalb Counties who currently pay to fund MARTA.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

@dbailey67

"No more bureaucracy and certainly our current governor has shown he's political to the core and is not working for what's best for Georgia."

I wouldn't necessarily say that Governor Deal is not working for what is not best for Georgia as the Governor showed overwhelmingly great judgement in cancelling the P3 (public-private partnership) that was in progress for the I-75/575 NW HOT Lane project that would have bound the state to a contract for between 50-70 years and would have restricted the state from making both critically-needed road and transit improvements and additions to parallel right-of-ways along the corridor where the privately-controlled HOT Lanes would have been in effect. Also, keep-in-mind that Deal inherited a huge mess on the transportation front which had not been addressed in a meaningful way in about two decades and that there is a very diverse constituency that has to be addressed when attempting to make these moves, from hard-core anti-road transit advocates on the poltical left, to very impatient suburban moderates in the political center who wanted to see something done to address their miserably-long commutes not now but yesterday, to anti-tax, anti-government and anti-transit Tea Partiers on the poltical right who hold a lot more poltical sway in GOP primaries than in general elections don't want to see one red cent spent on anything even remotely transit-related (and are surprisingly reluctant to consent to spending on roads as well) by a GOP-controlled state government. Needless-to-say, it is one heck of a political minefield for those may actually want to get something done on transportation where needs are overwhelming at this point.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

@dbailey67

"No more bureaucracy and certainly our current governor has shown he's political to the core and is not working for what's best for Georgia."

I agree that Governor Deal is very political as he knows that if he is to win re-election, he needs to make moves to gain a majority of the vote in the I-75/I-575 Northwest Corridor (Cherokee, Paulding and especially in heavily-populated Cobb County, which went for Karen Handel in the 2010 Primary). Gov. Deal also knows that he absolutely MUST make moves to retain the overwhelming support that he had in the I-85 Northeast Corridor in the 2010 elections, ESPECIALLY in even more heavily-populated Gwinnett County which gave Deal more votes than any other county in Georgia in both the primary and the general election, support which may be compromised with the massively unpopular I-85 HOT Lanes debacle.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

@Steveland

At this point, I don't know if there are too many more "unprofitable" (more like underused) routes to cut as over the last few years MARTA has cut expenditures deep to the bone and then some. MARTA is pretty much running a bare-bones operation at the moment while staring at the reality that it may have to make even more painful cuts to what has already been dramatically reduced service. Atlanta is the nation's eighth-largest metro area yet our main transit service, MARTA, has been ranked as low as #91 in quality out of the 100 largest U.S. metro areas after being ranked at the other end of the transit universe throughout much of the 1980's and 90's being ranked as high up as the Top 10 at one point in the lead-up to the Olympics if I am correct. Unfortunately this is just nothing but further proof how much something as crucial as transportation and transit have been so utterly and increasingly neglected by the powers-that-be around these parts in recent years.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

@transit junkie

"This is a message from the Last Ddemocrat with the Least knowlwdge of transit issues."

"What a kook"

Well, tell me "transit junkie", what, if anything, constructive do YOU have to contribute to this critical conversation about transportation in Metro Atlanta besides misspelled, misguided and misinformed insults? You are going to have to come with A LOT more substance if you are to be taken seriously or be perceived to have any credibility on this are any other issue in this or any other forum. Have a nice day.....

Burroughston Broch
Burroughston Broch

@The Last Democrat in Georgia@Steveland

What do you mean running deep to the bone. MARTA is mandated to spend 50% of revenues for capital? Seen any capital spending recently, other than the Armour Drive facility? What MARTA wants is to spend 100% for operations (spell as bigger salaries, more union hires, etc.).

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

@Burroughston Broch@Steveland

I've said it before and I maintain that MARTA's fares are likely too low to do what the agency is being asked to do and expected to do with just the revenues from a one-cent sales tax from Fulton and DeKalb Counties and no state support, even with the recent increase in fares to $2.50 one-way as fares in other cities range from anywhere from $3.00 one-way in Toronto, to $5.00 one-way in D.C. to as much as $10.90 one-way in the Bay Area. If MARTA wants to maintain service, restore service, increase service or expand service then the agency is going to have to recover more revenues from the farebox and require that users pay more of the cost to operate, maintain and expand the level of service needed to make an impact on congestion and gridlock in Metro Atlanta, especially with no increased financial support coming from the state anytime soon, if ever.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

@The Last Democrat in Georgia@Steveland

"What do you mean running deep to the bone [?]"

Deep to the bone as in continued cuts to bus and train service (increased headways and higher frequencies between trains and buses, fewer routes, etc).

The 50% required to be spent on capital maintenance could be relaxed slightly (like down to NO LESS than 40%) for small increments of time, but as others have mentioned, with federal funding very much likely about to be reduced because of obvious fiscal "issues" in D.C., it is probably not necessarily all that wise to skimp on capital spending so as to avoid not having maintenance issues (i.e. wheels falling off of buses and trains, etc)

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  1. [...] the draft legislation suggested by the Transit Governance Task Force. There are; however, strings as Maria Saporta writes in The Saporta Report: To free MARTA from the state-imposed restriction that 50 percent of its revenues be spent on [...]

  2. [...] the draft legislation suggested by the Transit Governance Task Force. There are; however, strings as Maria Saporta writes in The Saporta Report: To free MARTA from the state-imposed restriction that 50 percent of its revenues be spent on [...]