Legislature OKs $8.1 million for Xpress buses, stalls MARTA reorganization plan until next year

By David Pendered

Two transit measures that are important to metro Atlanta commuters were resolved when the state Legislature ended its 2013 session late Thursday.

Xpress route map

Xpress buses serve 2 million riders a year in 12 metro Atlanta counties. Credit: Xpress.com

The Xpress bus service received $8.1 million in funding, which will enable the commuter bus program operated by GRTA to continue its service through the fiscal year that begins July 1. An additional $567,000 will keep buses running through June 30.

A proposal to reorganize MARTA and privatize some of its operations stalled in the Senate and is eligible for reconsideration in the Legislature’s 2014 session.

Gov. Nathan Deal included the Xpress funding in his initial budget recommendation in January.

The way Deal’s budget writers inserted the funding has long-term implications for state funding of the regional transit program.

The Xpress funding was added into an area of the budget that historically is continued from year to year. The amounts of money provided vary over time. But once a program is funded through the state’s “continuation budget” mechanism, the program itself becomes difficult for its political foes to reduce significantly – or even to eliminate.

The $567,000 was provided through an addition to the budget for the current fiscal year, 2013. It will enable service levels to be maintained at existing levels through June 30. Without the money, Xpress was on track to run out of money sometime in June.

The money is intended to offset the loss of local funds from counties, as well as federal funds allocated through the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program.

Deal did not trumpet the Xpress funding. The governor addressed his transportation philosophy in his budget presentation:

  • “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.”

The Xpress funding came under attack from transit advocates who challenged a transit funding approach that provided state money for regional transit but not for MARTA.

The main objectives of the advocates was to derail the MARTA reorganization bill.

The MARTA proposal, House Bill 264, failed to pass this year and will be up for reconsideration when the Legislature reconvenes in 2014.

Whether the bill’s failure was due to the protests of the transit advocates who were working with the union, or due to political considerations such as Atlanta’s role in securing funding for a new Falcons stadium, remains a matter known only to those involved in the negotiations.

Rep. Mike Jacobs (R-Brookhaven), the bill’s sponsor, had offered a number of concessions – including an offer to remove the privatization proposal. One thing Jacobs declined to budge on was the bill’s plan to reduce the power of the county commissions of Fulton and DeKalb to appoint directors to MARTA’s board and shift those appointee to the newly formed cities in the two counties.

Jacobs said in the waning days of the session that he expects HB 264 to be reconsidered in the 2014 session.

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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