Georgia in midst of transit crisis; stabilization needed; state leaders look the other way
Let me paint you a picture.
MARTA is facing a potential $120 million operating shortfall come July 1, a situation that will cause drastic decreases in transit service.
The Clayton bus system — C-Tran — is scheduled to end its service April 1 because the Clayton County Commission decided it could no longer afford being in the transit business.
The Georgia Regional Transportation Authority’s X-Press bus service in 2011 is facing an end to its federal new starts funding for many of its routes, which means that service will have to be eliminated or significantly reduced.
Cobb County Transit, which celebrated its 20th year anniversary last year, is facing budget challenges, and for the first time it might have to cut back on its bus operations.
In all, there 120 different transit systems across the state, and almost all of them are in a financial squeeze.
It all comes down to lack of stable funding for transit operations in Georgia.
Given the transit crisis that we’re facing, the logical response would be for state leaders to come up with a solution.
But when Gov. Sonny Perdue was asked this week whether there were any proposals to address this transit crisis, the governor answered: “I’m not aware of anything.”
Instead, the governor, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston stood together cooperatively supporting a transportation funding plan.
The three-part plan called for giving 12 regions an opportunity to vote on a one-cent transportation sales tax in the spring of 2012, and that tax would be implemented in each region if passed by a majority of voters.
The second part of the plan called for issuing $300 million in general obligation bonds each year for 10 years — for a total of $3 billion — to invest primarily in the state’s freight infrastructure. None of that money is proposed to go to transit.
And the third part of the proposal called for a three-year suspension of the onerous state restriction that says MARTA must spend 50 percent of sales tax income on capital and 50 percent on operations.
MARTA’s sales tax is collected in just Fulton, DeKalb and Atlanta, without state support. MARTA is the only transit system in the country with such a restriction, and it is the largest transit system in the country that receives no operating support for its state.
The governor was asked why he didn’t propose eliminating that restriction altogether, Perdue answered: “We want MARTA to go in and prove they are good stewards.”
Again, MARTA gets no operating dollars from the state. So shouldn’t it really be up to Fulton, DeKalb and Atlanta to provide oversight on how MARTA spends their money?
Still, giving MARTA flexibiity is good, and would have definitely come in handy in earlier years. But today it is no panacea.
MARTA faces a major capital expense — $180 million — to upgrade its train control system over the next several years. MARTA has been operating with a basic system that was installed 30 years ago.
But after Washington, D.C.’s Metro system had a serious accident last year, the National Transportation Safety Board mandated upgrades to all major transit systems.
So flexibility will not help MARTA reduce some of its operating shortfall for the foreseeable future.
That leaves us right back to being in the middle of a transit crisis without a plan.
The 120 transit systems throughout Georgia can’t wait until a 2012 vote is passed before they can receive additional funding support. The support is needed now.
Why should the average Georgian care?
GRTA’s Jim Ritchey said the X-Press buses have 8,500 daily boardings, which is equivalent to two highway lanes. In all, GRTA buses provide
40 million passenger miles a year. MARTA provides 541 million
passenger miles a year. How many highway lanes would it take to carry MARTA’s passengers?
If transit operators throughout the state have to cut back service, that means more and more people will have no choice but to drive. Imagine what that will do to our already-congested roadways. For those who like driving cars, supporting transit is in their self interest.
A solid cost-benefit analysis would compare how much it would cost the state to build several extra lanes of highways vesus how much it would cost to improve transit operations.
Beverly Scott, MARTA’s general manager, said our rail system currently is only operating at 30 percent of its planned capacity. Trains could run at 90-second intervals instead of every six to 12 minutes during its peak operations.
So instead of facing drastic cuts in transit operations, we should be talking about expanding our transit service, both by maximizing our existing infrastructure and by developing a true regional transit network.
Ttransit plans exist. The Atlanta Regional Commission’s Regional Transit Committee (formerly the Transit Planning Board) has a comprehensive plan for metro Atlanta.
But even if the region passes a penny sales tax for transportation in 2012, we would not come close to having enough money to build out that plan.
Part of the problem is that less than half of the proposed sales tax revenues raised in the Atlanta region would go to transit. And that could be optimistic. Gov. Perdue said the state’s transportation planning director — Todd Long — would be involved in developing the project lists for each region.
Would a region or Long determine which projects would be included?
All the governor would say is that there would be a “healthy tension” between the region and the state planning director. That tension does not bode well for transit.
It was Long that determined that no transit projects would be included in this year’s $300 million general obligations bonds.
That leaves us right back to being in a transit crisis with no paddle.
So what needs to happen. Our leaders need to come up with a transit stabilization plan to provide a bridge of funding for the next three years — until regions can pass the sales tax in 2012.
Could this year’s general obligation bonds be increased to $400 million to help transit operators? Could a penny of the sales tax on gasoline be redirected to transit? Could the state buy up some assets from transit agencies to given them some operating relief?
Those are just a few ideas that our state leaders can ponder.
Just saying — “I’m not aware of anything” — just ain’t good enough.