It’s been pretty easy to blame the state legislature for the lack of progress on regional transportation issues and MARTA during the last session.
But part of the problem rests within the region. There has been a lack of consensus among local governments and their delegation of senators and representatives on how to proceed on key regional issues.
A significant meeting took place last week at Fulton County that hopes to change that backdrop.
The meeting included top elected leaders from the city of Atlanta Fulton County, DeKalb County, state representatives and senators as well as the top executives of MARTA.
“We are looking for better coordination,” said John Eaves, chairman of the Fulton County Commission. “Our state representatives have to know what we as local governments want from them by articulating a common agenda.”
The centerpiece of this meeting, which took place Thursday afternoon, at Fulton County, was MARTA. Each of the local governments represented had a vested interest in making sure MARTA is financially sound and well-positioned for the future.
For the better part of four decades, Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb have been collecting a penny sales tax to help fund the construction and and operation of MARTA. During that time, MARTA has received virtually no financial support from the state of Georgia and the rest of the region.
So it is those jurisdictions that are particularly vulnerable when MARTA General Manager Beverly Scott reported on the dire prognosis for her transit agency unless the level of support improves.
“It’s pretty ominous,” Eaves said about Scott’s report at the meeting. “There was a feeling that in 2011 we could be looking at some major disruptions in service.”
MARTA faced a similar threat earlier this year. Like so many other governmental entities, MARTA has experienced a serioius decline in sales tax revenue, and its budget projections showed large deficits in upcoming budgets.
So MARTA asked the state legislature for the flexibility to be able to use more of its sales tax money for operating expenses.
When MARTA was established, there was a state-imposed restriction that said half of its sales tax had to go towards capital improvements and the other half to operating. But as MARTA quit expanding, it had less need to use the money for capital and a greater need to use it for operations.
But the legislature failed to pass a bill giving MARTA that flexibility. It would have had to drastically cut back its operations had the Atlanta Regional Commission not come up with a plan to allocate $25 million in federal stimulus funds toward MARTA operations.
Unfortunately, that’s was a one-time fix to help cover operating costs through its fiscal year ending on June 30, 2010.
MARTA still needs flexibility to spend its penny as it sees fit. And the state needs to figure out a way to start providing annual support for MARTA, currently the largest transit agency in the country that doesn’t get regular operating support from the state.
“To all of us, it heightens the sense of urgency that something needs to be done,” Eaves said. “We need to come up with ways to lobby the state to get support for MARTA.”
As extraordinary as it sounds, this group of local governments, elected leaders and MARTA officials have not had such a brain-storming session in recent memory.
There have been joint Fulton and DeKalb meetings before, but this was the first one that included Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, City Council President Lisa Borders, MARTA’s leadership and several members of the local delegation to the state legislature.
As obvious a strategy as it seems, the local urban governments have not been able to work in unison to protect their longterm investments in MARTA and Grady Hospital as well as other issues in the region’s core.
“We feel we have made a great investment in MARTA for the past 40 years,” Eaves said. “And we feel MARTA will be a wonderful backbone for a regional transit system. But we also want to make sure MARTA gets the support it needs to remain vibrant.”
In the short-term, Eaves said “the low hanging fruit” is changing the MARTA legislation on the use of the sales tax. “The delegations need to be as unified as possible in getting that passed in the next session,” he added.
For the mid-term, Eaves said there needs to be a mechanism for increased state support for MARTA. Also, MARTA will seek any eligible federal funds that may become available.
And for the longterm, a proposal for new transportation funds must be presented to voters. Eaves said the coalition of Atlanta’s urban governments has not yet come up with a recommendation on whether it supports a statewide sales tax or a regional sales tax for transportation.
But the group is planning to meet again in August and September to refine its positions on upcoming legislation. As Eaves sees it, it’s important for this group to reach a consensus and then reach out to the rest of the region.
“There was great enthusiasm and optimism,” Eaves said of the meeting. “I’m encouraged. There’s a desire for action and better cooperation And there’s a sense of urgency. Right now we need to protect our investment in MARTA.”
Ideally, a more unified urban delegation will be able to influence members of the state legislature to act in the best interest of the Atlanta region and the state of Georgia.
But at least our local governments finally are getting their act together.