GRTA quietly making case to state lawmakers to fund Xpress bus service

By David Pendered

GRTA is working diligently at the state Capitol to support funding for Xpress, the regional bus service that is in line to receive $8.7 million in state funding, if state lawmakers support budget requests by Gov. Nathan Deal.

GRTA is presenting a case to lawmakers to support Gov. Nathan Deal's recommendation to fund the bus service. Credit: GRTA

GRTA is presenting a case to lawmakers to support Gov. Nathan Deal’s recommendation to fund the bus service. Credit: GRTA

GRTA, which manages the bus system, is making the case to help lawmakers see the value in state funding for a transit system that reportedly takes 1.5 million cars a year off metro Atlanta’s roads with its 2.4 million boardings in fiscal year 2012.

Jannine Miller, GRTA’s executive director, on Wednesday walked GRTA board members through the presentation the agency is delivering to lawmakers. The message is simple: Xpress represents a good fiscal policy for lawmakers to support.

Xpress is on schedule to run out of operating funds in June. The service continues today only because the state provided $5.4 million to sustain it through the 2013 fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Once that money is spent, there simply isn’t funding available to continue the existing level of service.

Miller’s presentation identifies the value to the state of providing funds to continue Xpress service. It portrays the service as financially responsible and fiscally sound:

  • GRTA is working diligently at the state Capitol to support funding for Xpress, the regional bus service that is in line to receive $8.7 million in state funding, if state lawmakers support budget requests by Gov. Nathan Deal.

    The long-term funding scenario is grim for Xpress, according to this report from GRTA.

    User fees cover a third of operating costs;

  • The service model can be altered to meet changes in demand – it now consists of 33 routes served by 175 coaches; has 28 park and ride lots in 12 counties; and draws ridership from nearly 40 counties.
  • Operations are outsourced to the private sector;
  • Customer satisfaction ratings are at 91 percent;
  • The service increases the capacity of roads;
  • The service provides a transit option for all Atlanta suburbs and links with major employers in downtown Atlanta and Midtown.

The Legislature is in the process of considering the governor’s budget recommendations. Subcommittees are meeting to hear presentations, such as the one by GRTA.

Once their reports are complete, possibly later this month, the Appropriations Committees of the House and Senate can issue their recommendations; the two chambers can vote on the budgets; and then conference committees can begin the work of reconciling differences between the House, Senate, and governor.

Deal has proposed lawmakers provide money to Xpress in two separate payments:

  • $567,000 in additional funds to make sure the service continues to the end of June by offsetting the loss of local and federal funds. The money would be part of the amended FY 2013 budget, which comes from the state’s general fund;
  • $8.1 million in FY 2014, which begins July 1. As with the increased funding Deal proposed in the amended budget, the money is intended to offset the loss of local funds, as well as federal funds allocated through the Congestion Mitication and Air Quality Improvement Program.

The $8.1 million figure is historic because GRTA has never before been funded in the state’s annual budget.

Its inclusion in this budget is significant because lawmakers historically have not eliminated funding from programs once they are established in the state’s major operating budget. Programs funded through the amended budget are much more vulnerable to being knocked off.

Deal hasn’t spoken from his bully pulpit about funding for Xpress. This is how he characterized his thoughts on transportation, in general, in his statement when he released the FY 2014 budget:

  • “In addition to building a globally competitive workforce, we must continue to make strategic investments in economic development, natural resources and transportation across the state to remain a competitive destination for business and grow high-skilled, well-paying jobs for Georgians.”

About David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with nearly 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.
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8 comments
BillEvelyn
BillEvelyn

Lies ... all lies.  It will NOT take 1.5 million cars off the highways.

inatl
inatl

Yeap this is a conflict.   The Xpress Bus service should be funded.  But to be fair the Counties getting the service should be funding it and/or the DeKalb/Fulton should get state aid for MARTA.   Granted one could say the Xpress service is good for DeKalb/Fulton/COA on the other hand I'm sure many people using Xpress would end up going to an outlying MARTA rail station and use that, thus increasing ridership.   

 

 

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

Lobbying the State Legislature to fund the GRTA Xpress commuter bus service is a process that has to be done very quietly, politically because doing so publicly and openly would incur the ire of residents of Fulton and DeKalb counties where the MARTA transit service is not funded by the state.

 

Openly and publicly lobbying the State Legislature to fund the GRTA Xpress commuter bus service would also incur the wrath of hard-line conservatives on the far right of the political spectrum who would likely be none-too-happy that the idea of the state funding a mode of transportation that they are highly-averse to in the form of public bus transit was being bandied about.

 

It reflects a political conflict of sorts within the ruling Georgia Republican Party as hard-line suburban and exurban conservatives within the far-right base of the party that controls the state's political scene through GOP Primaries don't want ANY state funding of transit, which they see as being extremely harmful to the future of the highly-treasured suburban and exurban lifestyle of OTP Metro Atlanta, while a likely slient majority of moderate OTP voters in the middle of the political spectrum would likely be none-too-happy at the increased congestion that would be added to rush hour commutes that are already very-challenging when thousands of additional vehicles piled onto already severely-congested roads after GRTA Xpress commuter buses ceased operations and those riders were forced to drive to and from work every morning and afternoon.

 

Don't expect Governor Deal to speak from a bully pulpit about funding for GRTA Xpress commuter buses as he attempts to delicately walk a tight rope towards what is so far an unchallenged re-election bid between highly transit and government spending-averse Tea Partiers and the like on his hard political right and the right-of-center, but more moderate suburban Republican voters to his political left who commute in some of the nation's worst traffic everyday and would see the discontinuance of GRTA Xpress commuter bus service as one more giant step backwards on transportation issues by a Georgia state government that has been either increasingly absent or just downright incompetent on transportation issues in the last decade.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

Mr. Pendered, thanks for the update on the status of state funding of GRTA Xpress commuter buses.  Your reporting is greatly appreciated.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

 @BillEvelyn

 Considering that GRTA Xpress regional commuter buses operate on a full schedule roughly 250 days a year (5 days a week times roughly 50 weeks a year), 1.5 million cars a year breaks down to roughly 6,000 cars each workday being taken off of the roads of Metro Atlanta.

 

In the greater scheme of things where there may be roughly up to 3 million vehicles or more on the roads in Metro Atlanta on any given workday, the roughly 6,000 vehicles or so that GRTA Xpress takes off of the roads of Metro Atlanta each workday may not sound like much overall, but when placed in the context of a freeway (like a I-75/85 Downtown Connector, an I-285 Top End, an I-75 or I-85 North just outside of I-285, etc) that carries up to 300,000 vehicles each day, those 6,000 or so vehicles that may be taken off of the roadways can make quite a difference on a severely-congested road that is stretched to the breaking point each morning and evening rush hour. 

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

 @inatl

 {{"on the other hand I'm sure many people using Xpress would end up going to an outlying MARTA rail station and use that, thus increasing ridership."}}

 

Expounding on that point, one might say that the many of the GRTA Xpress buses that now carry suburban riders into (and out of) Central Atlanta should instead carry those suburban riders to MARTA stations where they can transfer onto MARTA heavy rail trains from GRTA Xpress commuter buses and vice versa, on the routes where applicable.

 

The GRTA Xpress commuter bus system and the MARTA heavy rail system should be integrated together where commuters traveling into the city on a GRTA Xpress commuter bus can transfer onto inbound MARTA heavy rail trains during morning rush hours about at or just outside I-285 and commuters traveling out of the city on a MARTA heavy rail train can transfer onto outbound GRTA Xpress commuter buses to complete their trip home from the end of MARTA heavy rail lines during evening rush hours.

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