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.”

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 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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