A comprehensive look at the impact of HB 277 on MARTA and transit in the Atlanta region

For those who want to know exactly how House Bill 277 will impact MARTA,

I received the following message from the “Save MARTA” group’s Brian Baj.

It is the most comprehensive review of how the proposed regional transportation sales tax would help MARTA and how it would hurt MARTA.

The recap starts with MARTA’s 2010 legislative agenda, which included three priorities:

1. the elimination of the 50/50 capital and operations split of the existing one-cent MARTA sales tax;

2. providing a short-term funding bridge in the form of bonds; and

3. providing long-term transportation funding, including funds to operate and maintain transit.

So how did MARTA fare in HB 277?

The 50/50 restriction on the current sales tax is eliminated for three years and prohibits usage of new funds on wage increases, overtime pay and benefits.

On the issue of short-term funding, MARTA was not included in the state transportation bonding program.

On the issue of long-term funding, MARTA is “eligible to receive transit funds through a new regional sales tax for capital, operations and maintenance for NEW TRANSIT PROJECTS ONLY.”
But the recap goes on to say that the MARTA is not eligible to receive operating and maintenance funds for its exsiting system.

“Any new regional sales tax proceeds going to MARTA for the existing system may be used ONLY for capital infrastructure, NOT service.”

HB 277 also would restructure MARTA’s board.

MARTA’s board would be reduced from 18 to 11 members by removing three state appointees and appointees from Clayton and Gwinnett counties.

The new board would consist of :

3 residents from the City of Atlanta nominated by the Mayor and selected by the City Council;

4 residents from the DeKalb County appointed by the DeKalb County Commission, with at least one from South DeKalb and one from North DeKalb;

3 residents from Fulton County appointed by Fulton County Commission, with one from South Fulton and two from North Fulton;

1 state representative — the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Transportation, who would be a voting member; and

1 other state representative — executive director of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, who would be a non-voting member.

There also is the issue of the Clayton County referendum.

Clayton County was authorized to hold a referendum on the question of levying a 1 percent sales tax to join MARTA. (A non-binding referendum passed decisively on Nov. 2).

Also, the state sales tax cap was removed to allow Clayton County to levy an additional tax for public transportation after January 2010, but before November 1, 2012.

If a majority of the voters approve the referendum, then Clayton would become a member of MARTA and gain two seats on MARTA’s’ board.

At the same time, the state established the “Transit Governance Study Commission.”

The 15-member commission was created to examine the Atlanta region’s current transit governance structure and to develop legislative proposals to create a regional transit governing authority in Georgia.

The commission is to be composed of:

4 Senators from Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) area appointed by the Lieutenant Governor

4 House of Representatives from ARC area appointed by the Speaker of House

1 Chair of MARTOC (MARTA Oversight Committee_

2 Chair and one staff member of ARC

1 Executive Director of GRTA

1 General Manager and CEO of MARTA

2 Directors of any other transit system in ARC area (Cobb and Gwinnett)

The commission is charged with preparing a preliminary report on the feasibility of combining all regional transit entities into an integrated regional body. A preliminary report must be completed by Dec. 31, 2010, and a final report is due by Aug. 1, 2011 at which time the commission is abolished.

Different parts of the bill have differing effective dates.

The three-year elimination of 50/50 restriction became effective upon the signature of the governor.

The authorization for the Clayton County referendum and sales tax cap removal also became effective upon the signature of the governor.

The regional sales tax provisions become effective on January 1, 2011, with a referendum on regional tax implementation currently scheduled for July, 2012.

The “Save MARTA” email did address the following issue. Given the fact that the regional sales tax would be in place for 10 years, it would be difficult for MARTA to issue long-term bonds for capital improvements.

It’s still unknown how all the MARTA issues in HB 277 will play out and how that impact support for the bill in the City of Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb counties.

Another critical issue will be the development of a proposed project list by the Atlanta regional roundtable. Currently that roundtable is being put together, and its members are debating who will serve on its executive committee and whether they will fairly represent the region.

What is known is that the role of MARTA and transit in the Atlanta region is in a state of flux. But what we don’t know is if the end result will advance, improve and expand transit in our region.

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.

17 replies
  1. juanita driggs says:

    The whole package is overly complicated, unworkable and ultimately dead on arrival. If you want to completely screw up the viability of a transit system, this is the way to go about it. The so-called sales tax “regions” are also a non starter. There is no rational thinking going on here, only a lot of nibbling around the edges as to what should be done. What SHOULD be done is for the legislature to finally earmark a percentage of the gasoline tax presently dedicated almost exclusively to roads and road projects and earmark that percentage for public transit. This is the best and most efficient statewide approach to solve an increasingly chronic and ongoing politically charged problem. Now, who among the dead heads who’re running or are about to run this state have the political courage or chutzpah to take this on???Report

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  2. Jock Ellis says:

    Jaunita, you are absolutely correct. The bill was meant to be DOA. But the state’s gasoline tax usage is in the state constitution. What they need is an additional tax levied on gas sales that goes directly into transit. They also need to jack up the tax for roads because those are in dire need of attention, too. Unfortunately, no politician will ever say, “This would be a good time for a tax increase.”Report

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  3. Burroughston Broch says:

    Read the article in today’s AJC “Firms asked to fund MARTA workers party.” The MARTA Board is dunning 40-50 companies who do at least $50,000 of business with MARTA to donate $5,000-$10,000 to fund a holiday-time “employee appreciation event” for 4,400 MARTA employees. Donating (aka kicking back) $5,000 out of $50,000 is 10%. Let’s assume that there are 45 firms and they donate an average of $7,500 each, so the total would be $337,500 or $76.70 per employee. And the MARTA Board says that they see no conflict of interest.

    I see no reason to squander additional monies on MARTA until there is a housecleaning from top to bottom, beginning with the Board and ending with the multiple employees I see every work day who do nothing every work day.Report

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  4. Burroughston Broch says:

    @ Mike.

    I am a supporter of public transportation and use it regularly, both in Atlanta and elsewhere. Using it elsewhere gives me perspective on how deficient MARTA is. This week’s AJC article reminds us once again of how corrupt MARTA is. Last week’s article was about the General Manager/CEO’s executive assistant stealing for months by charging $3600 in non-MARTA related expenses to her seldom-checked MARTA purchasing card. Want to make a bet on the subject of the next one?

    A lot of other people and I are not willing to give MARTA anything close to a blank check as long as they continue in the present direction with the present leadership. Getting rid of the union featherbedders will be positive as well.Report

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  5. Bring back "Babe Alley" to the Georgia Capitol! (Unidentified State Representative) says:

    Amend the State Constitution to spend motor fuel tax revenue on “transportation alternatives”? None of the political “leadership” under the Gold Dome would dare publicly utter such a suggestion if they want to continue their political careers in a very conservative state that becomes increasingly more so by the day. Heck, the current gas tax doesn’t even adequately cover roads, so redirecting any of it to “transit”, which is for all intents and purposes pretty much a dirty word with negative connotations outside of the five-county metro core, or raising it to cover more roads and fund transit is something that you may never really see at the state level especially in the current Tea Party-driven political climate where politicians of both parties, but especially Republican politicians who are being held accountable to right-of-center smaller government principles, are expected to reduce government involvement in many aspects of society, reduce tax burdens and downsize government expenditures.

    MARTA could help itself out, a little (emphasis on “little” since recessionary conditions have tanked revenues across-the-board), in the current increasingly anti-tax climate by raising its own fares to a level that would help the agency offer the type of service that the community expects from it instead of waiting for financial help from the state, which isn’t coming in this lifetime and may just be the political equivalent of waiting for pigs to fly. Transit fares are much higher in other major North American cities ($3.00 in Toronto, $4.60 in Washington D.C., $36-a-week in Chicago, etc) and help their respective systems provide a much higher level of service in helping provide alternatives to having to always drive on crowded roads.

    The hard reality is that gas tax and sales tax increases are not just toxic, but radioactive at the state level in Georgia, an increasingly conservative “red state” with a strong libertarian streak. No matter how bad congestion gets in Metro Atlanta, gas and sales tax increases will never be a politically viable option in state politics which means that other creative means of funding will have to be found if critical across-the-board infrastructural improvements for water (new reservoirs) and transportation (road improvements, new bus and rail lines, etc) facilities in the form of bonds, tolls on roads and transit fare increases.Report

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  6. Scott says:

    Yet another commission that will be a big waste as all the commissions before it. One ray of hope is that at least Jill Chambers wont be part of the equation. But I am also noticing that in the “Transit Governance Study Commission”, every appointee will most likely be republican. That in and of itself wont represent the majority of people who need a functioning and healthy MARTA. As for management…Beverly Scott sure as hell doesn’t need to stay here. She is nationally praised and could find a job in a more receptive environment easily. She stays because she wants to make MARTA better. I could go into audit ANY business the size of MARTA and easily find financial inconsistencies similar to those mentioned. $3,600 is nothing when you are talking about billions. Its easy to cherry pick to prove any point of view. Georgia has one of the lowest gas taxes…which it will sadly remain as suchReport

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  7. Burroughston Broch says:

    @ Scott.

    Since when is a $3,600 embezzlement by Beverly Scott’s executive assistant a “financial inconsistency?” Would you term the cheating scandal in the Atlanta Public Schools a “statistical anomaly?”

    You must be using “progressive” Democratic language, judging by your snipe that Republicans “won’t represent the majority of the people who need a healthy and functioning MARTA.” I would challenge you to back up your assertion with real data, since I am one of many thousands of non-Democrats who ride MARTA every work day.Report

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  8. Scott says:

    3,600 is hardly an indictment of the entire system. Nowhere did I say that it was not wrong…simply not as relevant as you would like to make it in the big picture. If it is proven to be illegal in a court of law, the perpetrator should be prosecuted. As for totals of Fulton/Dekalb/City of Atlanta…they voted 67% for the Democrat in the 2008 presidential race. Since GA does not require you to register a political party than exact numbers are not available, but the facts are that these appointees do not represent the majority of riders who cannot afford other transportation and I would guess vote generally democratic. As for your progressive comment…If caring that people who have very little voice (because they are not wealthy) are heard, if caring about the future of Metro Atlanta for ALL of us, if not wanting Atlanta to get shafted once again by an out of touch legislature makes me a progressive then I wear that badge with honor. The republicans as a general rule have NOT fostered a “healthy and functioning MARTA”. Please enlighten me on how they have done that if I am so wrong.Report

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  9. Jim Durrett says:

    I am a MARTA board member. Calling MARTA corrupt is your right, but you really ought to consider more information than a couple of AJC articles before you do so. Staff identified the purchase card problem with the general manager’s assistant and brought it to the attention of the general manager. The general manager fired her. The board ordered an independent audit. The audit identified some problems in how policy was being followed. The problems have been or are being addressed. Regarding the holiday party, the request of vendors to sponsor the party was carefully considered. MARTA’s procurement policies and procedures are transparent and objective. Very good checks and balances are in place. MARTA staff have endured pay freezes, furloughs and staff reductions because we must be fiscally responsible. A holiday party for employees to get together for photos with Santa and to help morale is the right thing to do, and enough vendors were able to respond to our request to sponsor the party that we could pull it off. I will be at the party to say thank you to our employees; I won’t have a clue next month as to which vendors contributed and which did not. Last, fares don’t come close to funding MARTA – they don’t come close to funding any transit system. Could we realize greater revenue by raising fares? Yes. Would some people not be able to use MARTA if fares were to increase? Yes. Is it expensive to change your fare system? Yes. So we had better do a careful and thorough job, as we are in the middle of doing right now, to identify how to appropriately change how and what people pay for transit in this region. All that being said, thank you for caring enough about transit and its role in keeping the Atlanta region competitive to follow what we are doing and to engage in dialogue about it.Report

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  10. Scott says:

    Mr. Durrett, thank you for what you do. It seems to be in fashion to trash MARTA at every turn, but few realize that MARTA is one of the most efficiently run systems in the country (if not the most)Report

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  11. BPJ says:

    There is a mistaken belief that “gas taxes” are restricted by the state constitution to roads and bridges. Actually, there are two “gas taxes”, and one of them is so restricted and the other one is not.

    The Motor Fuel Tax is restricted by the state constitution to roads and bridges, and there is a state attorney general’s opinion that such language means it may not be used for transit. This tax, by the way, is measured in cents per gallon, and has not been adjusted in decades………meaning that each year it produces less revenue (due mainly to inflation, but also greater fuel efficiency).
    The sales tax on gasoline, which is a % of the price at the pump, is not restricted only to roads and bridges. In fact, one-fourth of that revenue currently goes into the general budget (the rest goes to the DOT). This revenue source varies with the price of gas, which goes up and down.
    Revenue from the sales tax on gasoline could be used for transit NOW, as far as the state constitution is concerned. The real problem has been anti-Atlanta, anti-transit attitudes in the legislature. (And just so there’s no confusion, we are not asking for the state to “give” us money; we in Atlanta, a net contributor to the state budget, are only asking for OUR contributions to state government to be used in our area in a manner consistent with our priorities.)
    Finally, we need to be thinking about the fact that gas taxes are going to be less and less useful over the next few decades, as cars become more efficient. That is why a general sales tax to fund transit is the way to go.Report

    Reply
  12. Burroughston Broch says:

    @ Jim Durrett

    Thank you for your response, but I still disagree with you on some points. I hope that you will respond again.
    1. How is it that the CEO didn’t review her executive assistant’s expense reports and discover the cheating herself? It is good business practice for the boss to review expense reports of those who report directly to the boss.
    2. Pressuring vendors to “donate” $337,000 for a MARTA employee Christmas party is extortion. Do your transparent and objective purchasing policies inform bidders that, if they do over $50,000/year of business with you, that they will be expected to donate $5,000-$10,000 for a Christmas party?
    3. MARTA employees have had it no rougher than most of us the past few years. That dog won’t hunt.Report

    Reply
  13. Jim Durrett says:

    BB: here you go…
    1. This wasn’t an expense report situation, as you and I understand and use expense reports. There was a breakdown in procedures to be followed in the use of P-cards, or purchase cards, by this individual. To further elaborate would be inappropriate here, but once the breakdown was discovered, it was dealt with.
    2. The amount donated by vendors wasn’t in the same ballpark, much less universe, as your $337K figure, and there was no expectation that any of the vendors would contribute. We just hoped we could raise enough to have a simple party.
    3. Yes, but it’s a good dog that wags its tail when I come through the door and makes me feel good.Report

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  14. Burroughston Broch says:

    @ Jim Durrett

    1. The question is why the embezzlement went on for so long before it was discovered. Some one (the GM), perhaps many ones, were asleep at the switch.
    2. OK, so why don’t you reveal the real figures and debunk what the AJC published? A simple party for 4400 people at $76.70/head?
    3. A flippant comment not worthy of response.Report

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  15. Burroughston Broch says:

    @ Jim Durrett

    Congratulations on you election as Chair of the MARTA Board for 2011. I hope that you will be a positive force toward resolving some of MARTA’s numerous problems, and that you keep your sense of humor.Report

    Reply

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