By Guest Columnist KEN GREGOR, a former MARTA CEO and general manager, and former chair of MARTA’s board
Building priorities with construction sequencing was a constantly recurring, difficult and frequently divisive issue throughout MARTA’s history. It was made more complex with limited funding. On several occasions the participating counties and cities disagreed on the priority choices and, as a result, the construction schedules were sometimes adversely impacted.
Ideally and simplistically it is frequently argued that cost effectiveness, in effect, patronage and construction cost estimates should be the controlling factors in determining priorities and sequencing. However, since MARTA operates within a political as well as economic environment, political factors need to be a consideration. Yet, local political issues or preferences cannot be unreasonably over emphasized at the expense of prudent cost and patronage forecasts if federal funds are expected.
For instance, in one case where MARTA included a rail line that the Federal Transit Administration indicated failed the cost-effectiveness test, federal funds were not made available. As a result the line had to be financed exclusively with local funds.
If the MARTA construction program is to move forward in an expedited manner, the differences between the Clifton Corridor proponents and the Atlanta BeltLine advocates obviously have to be resolved quickly. It has been my observation and experience that when competing interests arrive at compromised and reasonable determinations, their local elected officials make more desirable and suitable decisions on an accelerated basis.
After my 27 years at MARTA, in both executive and board positions, and having been intimately involved in the building of the rail system, one of the more effective and successful methods of determining building priorities is through the use of a citizen committee.
In one case in which MARTA employed a citizen committee, the committee revised the rail program and enumerated its construction priorities. The citizen committee was composed of community and business leaders impacted by the construction, as well as representatives from educational institutions and various governmental agencies that would benefit from transit operations. The members were appointed by the participating governments.
After much “pushing and shoving,” the committee reached consensus and adopted recommendations that were ultimately accepted by the governments. As a matter of fact, MARTA’s successful resolution of the priorities issue enabled the authority to obtain more federal funds than it anticipated because it had “our local act together,“ while many of our competitive transit agencies in other cities that also sought federal funds could not agree on building and construction priorities, and other important transit issues.
MARTA will always face political and economic issues of transit modes and priorities as well as insufficient funding. A satisfactory model for determining priorities that is developed now can be applicable in the future as more communities embrace transit.
Note to readers: Ken Gregor was a member of MARTA’s staff for 23 years, including 12 years as CEO and general manager. Subsequently, Gregor served as a member of MARTA’s board, including service as chairman of the board.