State legislators fail to give MARTA the needed flexibility on how it spends local funds

By Maria Saporta

It gets so bloody depressing.

Once again, MARTA has gotten screwed. This time, it was at the hands of the State Rep. Mike Jacobs, State Rep. Steve Davis and other misguided colleagues who have lost sight of what being a legislator is all about — to act in the best interests of the state.

In the closing minutes of the 2012 legislative session, political motives and missteps failed to remove the noose around MARTA’s neck that forces the transit agency to spend 50 percent of the sales tax it collects on capital improvements and 50 percent on operations.

In other words, MARTA was denied the flexibility of spending the sales tax revenue it collects for its most pressing needs. The 50/50 restriction had been waived for three years. But the failure of the legislature to act on MARTA’s behalf means that the 50/50 handcuffs will be reinstated in a year — hindering the transit agency’s ability to operate.

MARTA will hold a special board meeting on Monday, April 2 “to discuss financial matters and corridor planning studies” at 10:30 a.m. at its headquarters building at 2424 Piedmont Road — the Lindbergh MARTA station).

The meeting is being held to figure out what options it has to respond to what happened during the 2012 legislative session.

The saddest part is that Rep. Jacobs, chairman of the MARTA Oversight Committee, ought to have known (and acted) better.

He could have urged his colleagues to permanently remove the 50/50 restriction, but instead he chose to clutter the legislation with giving more power on the MARTA board to North Fulton mayors (a totally unrelated issue). And MARTA got caught up in his push to create a City of Brookhaven. Again, another unrelated issue.

The Sierra Club’s Neill Herring put it this way:

“Jacobs is ultimately at fault in my opinion,” Herring wrote me in an email. “He was the main voice for keeping legislative control over the disposition of the sales tax receipts (the 50-50 issue). He said it was a “crude but necessary tool for fiscal management” or words very like that.”

Here is the irony. MARTA continues to be viewed in the public transit world as one of the most efficient and well-run transit agencies in the country. But you would never know that if you listened to our prejudicial state legislators.

So MARTA continues to be used as a political football in a twisted game between state and regional leaders. (Please read my former AJC colleague Jay Bookman’s column on this topic).

State legislators tried to create a carrot and stick approach with their regional transit governance bill. Do we want regional transit governance and the removal of the 50/50 restriction? Then give the state ultimate control of the regional transit agency.

Such a proposal was so flawed that the transit governance bill failed. It is ironic that the push to have the state take over MARTA and Atlanta regional came from a Republican-dominated legislature that claims to believe in local control.

Let’s recap.

The State of Georgia provides virtually no operating dollars for MARTA, yet it continues to hold a heavy, self-righteous stick over the transit agency. Since Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb pay the MARTA sales tax, they should be the entities calling the shots — not the state legislature.

The 50/50 restriction is just as flawed. No other major transit agency is forced to operate under such an inflexible rule. In recent years, MARTA has needed the flexibility to spend its sales tax revenues on operations. By not having that flexibility, MARTA will once again be facing more budget and service cuts and/or another fare increase.

Whose interest does that serve?

State legislators also are quick to criticize MARTA’s finances and say it needs to find other forms of revenue. But Rep. Davis killed the possibility of permitting MARTA to contract with local governments outside of Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb to plan, implement and operate rail transit.

MARTA is the only transit agency in the state with any expertise in rail. But local governments who want to start providing rail in their jurisdictions can’t contract with MARTA, even in a competitive bidding situation.

And whose interest does that serve?

This phenomenon of punishing MARTA for the sins of the legislators is not new.

Word has it that MARTA was used as the bargaining chip to create a county of Milton. When the Transportation Investment Act (HB 277) was passed, it included a restriction that none of the money collected by the one-percent sales tax could fund MARTA’s existing operations.

MARTA was the only transit agency in the state to be prohibited from receiving the TIA dollars for operations. Supposedly, if a certain legislator had been able to get a vote to create a Milton County, she would have taken out MARTA restriction.

Again, who is served by such vicious and misguided attacks on MARTA?

Certainly not the Atlanta region — and by extension, certainly not the state of Georgia.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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