By Maria Saporta
It’s official. The fares for the Xpress bus service are going up.
The board of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority held its board meeting Wednesday afternoon and voted unanimously for a fare increase beginning in October.
People will now be charged based on the distance they travel, which translates into some fares going from $3 a ride to $4. Riders also will no longer have the ability to travel on MARTA for that one fare price. (See Maria’s Metro column).
The reciprocal fare agreement between MARTA and GRTA has been one way to create a more seamless transit network in the Atlanta region. But by discontinuing the reciprocal fare agreement, GRTA officials hope to be able to generate about $200,000.
The one feature the board kept is that GRTA will keep the 31-day pass rather than going to a monthly pass. That gives riders extra flexibility to not have to pay for rides if they’re on vacation.
At the GRTA board meeting, officials described the severity of the system’s projected operating shortfall — which is expected to be $10.5 million for the fiscal year 2012 and as much as $36 million for the next three years. At that time, GRTA hopes that a regional penny sales tax will have passed in the Atlanta region and that GRTA’s bus service would have been included in the project list.
Either way, GRTA officials call this period a three-year gap in operating revenues.
Part of the strategy for Jannine Miller, GRTA’s new executive director who was attending her first meeting in her new role, will be to work with state and local governments to try to find a way to pay for the system.
She said the Georgia Department of Transportation and the Atlanta Regional Commission have been sympathetic to GRTA’s dire financial situation.
Back when GRTA’s Xpress bus system started, there was a interesting carrot offered to counties to help pay for the service. Counties could give GRTA funds, but then they would be rewarded for their participation by receiving additional road dollars from GDOT.
This was one way to get around the problem of the Georgia constitution. It has been determined that GDOT’s gas tax revenues can only be spent on roads and bridges.
Miller said she hoped that GRTA would be able to structure a partnership between the counties and GDOT so that the Xpress bus system would be able to receive needed operating revenues.
GRTA Chairman Sonny Deriso said that the authority is in a period of transition because of the statewide elections this fall.
Because GRTA is a complete creature of the governor, whoever takes office in January will be able to reconfigure the board to his liking. The board meeting took place right after GOP gubernatorial candidate Karen Handel had conceded the run-off election to former U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal.
GRTA legislation gives the governor complete authority on being able to pick the members who serve on the board. The governor also has a great amount of influence in who is the executive director.
For example, Gov. Sonny Perdue a couple of years ago named Dick Anderson to serve as GRTA’s executive director. Anderson stepped down from that position earlier this year to join Handel’s gubernatorial campaign. But Anderson stayed connected because he was named vice chairman of the board.
Miller is in a similar spot because she also was named to her post by Perdue, and there’s always the question of whether Deal or Roy Barnes, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, will want to keep the GRTA board and staff in place.
What will not change over the next several years is the need for more dollars to support transit operations, be it GRTA or MARTA or some hybrid version.