By David Pendered
The million-dollar question facing more than 2 million riders a year who use the Xpress bus service is actually a multimillion-dollar question.
Will the state continue to provide funds for GRTA to maintain Xpress bus service across 12 counties in metro Atlanta?
Only Gov. Nathan Deal and the state Legislature can respond. Their final answer won’t be known until state budgets are adopted in, perhaps, March 2013.
This is because the state appears to be the funder of last resort for Xpress. This year’s allocation of about $5.4 million is slated to run out in June 2013.
The ongoing source of money to operate Xpress, over the next decade, was supposed to come from the proposed sales tax for transportation. In the time since voters in July rejected that 1 percent sales tax, no magic pot of money has appeared to fund Xpress.
The question probably is not whether GRTA will continue to exist. Throughout the economic downturn, the state has continued to entrust a wide, and growing, array of tasks related to economic development and transportation planning in the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority.
Deal this year has reappointed GRTA’s executive director and four of its 15 board members. The governor appointed three new GRTA board members – the county commission chairs of Douglas, Gwinnett and Henry counties. All represent counties with strong usage of Xpress bus service.
Deal’s moves regarding GRTA are hardly an indication the governor intends to disband the authority.
However, Xpress bus service is a different story.
The program was started in 2003 with funding from federal and local governments, and fares. The state stepped in to provide funding two years ago, to offset losses in funding from local governments and the federal CMAQ program – Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality.
Xpress is expected to require almost $200 million over the next decade, in operating and capital expenditures, to continue its service, according to estimates provided by GRTA during the funding discussions surrounding the sales tax referendum.
The governor will give the first indication on the fate of Xpress funding when he releases his proposed budgets in January. Funding for Xpress service will be included, or not, as a separate line item in the governor’s proposals.
For the past two years in which the state has provided Xpress with operating funds, the money has been included in Georgia’s mid-year amended budget.
This is the document the governor and General Assembly use to amend the year-long spending plan. The amendments are made after officials have a sense of whether state revenues will meet or, hopefully, exceed the conservative projection the governor set to determine the annual budget.
The important distinction here is that Xpress funding has not been included as an appropriation in the state’s annual spending plan. As such, it may be more likely to be funded because it would be a continuation expense.
However, Xpress funding has been added into the budget as a one-time expense as the state’s revenues have been exceeding the governor’s revenue projections. Deal, like most recent Georgia governors, has provided conservative estimates of the amount of taxes the state will collect in the future.
Georgia’s revenue figures this year have been trending higher than projected. That suggests Deal and lawmakers will have some extra money to allocate when the next legislative session convene in January.
The most recent figures show that Georgia’s net revenue collections for the first four months of the 2013 fiscal year show an increase of 4.8 percent compared to the same period last year.
The October figures the governor released Nov. 9 show net collections for the fiscal year, which began July 1, totaled $5.6 billion. That amount is an increase of $258.5 million over last year’s figures, according to Deal’s report.