First it was MARTA. Now it is the Xpress buses operated by the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority.
The suburban system is facing a significant shortfall in operating funds, and as a last resort, it is contemplating having to shut down the system.
To avoid such a drastic outcome, GRTA cut service on 16 Xpress routes on July 6, and GRTA spokesman William Mecke said “we will be even more aggressive at the end of the year.”
GRTA also has a proposal to revamp its fare structure and adopt a distance-based fare increase, which will result in significant increases for some of its riders. GRTA also is proposing to end its reciprocal fare arrangement with MARTA (where riders can buy one fare to ride seamlessly from one system to another).
The GRTA board is expected to vote on the proposed fare increases at its meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 11. (See news story on SaportaReport).
In all, all those actions are expected to save GRTA $1.1 million during the current fiscal year. But that doesn’t even come close to overcoming its anticipated shortfall.
Even if the fare increases are adopted, GRTA’s Xpress bus system is expected to run a $10.5 million deficit for the 2012 fiscal year, which will begin next July.
And for the next three years, that shortfall is expected to total $36 million.
So GRTA currently is evaluating potential sponsorships for the system, implementing parking fees, consider increasing the base fare in addition to the distance-based fares, putting billboards in its park-and-ride lots, having private vendors at the park-and-ride lots, and then implement further service cuts.
“If nothing changes, we would get to April and pretty much be out of money,” Mecke said. Passing the proposed fare increases, however, “will get us a long way to get us through this year.”
GRTA’s situation is just more proof to Georgia’s inability to financially support transit operations. The state does not provide regular operating support to the state’s largest transit agency — MARTA — the only major system in the country that does not receive state funding.
Earlier this year, Clayton County discontinued its bus service because it did not want to pay for its system. And the state did not step in to help keep the Clayton buses running.
Also MARTA had to cut back its bus and rail service because of its own operating shortfall. The state, however, did temporarily remove a restriction that forced MARTA to spend half its own sales tax revenue on capital and half on operating, even if it needed more money to run its system.
But that move does not come close to giving MARTA the funds to run a robust rail and bus stem in Fulton and DeKalb counties. The situation is not expected to improve in the near future.
The brightest ray of hope is the regional transportation sales tax referendum that will go before voters in 2012. The penny sales tax would allow those revenues to go towards transit operations.
Meanwhile, there’s considerable concern on how the region’s transit systems will be able to survive until that tax is passed, or what will happen to those systems long term if the referendum fails.
“We are going to do everything we can to fill this gap and keep going,” Mecke said about GRTA’s Xpress buses. “We are going to go back to the counties to see if we can find some kind of way to incent them (to support the Xpress bus service).”
Currently, GRTA has 31 routes that provide transit tentacles to 13 Atlanta metro counties. It averages more than 8,000 boardings a day, and that is equivalent to two highway lanes during peak traffic times.
Mecke said the “worst-case scenario” would be having to shut down the GRTA Xpress bus system. That would put a $110 million grant in jeopardy for the I-85 HOT demonstration project, and would likely require GRTA to pay back the funds it already has spent on that project.
GRTA would then have to liquidate all of its assets — selling its buses as well as its park-and-ride lots.
But even then, GRTA would still owe the federal government about $20 million that it has invested in the system.
Somehow, the state needs to come up with a funding source for transit operations as soon as possible. It can’t afford to wait until regions may or may not pass a transportation sales tax.
In fact, there’s a Catch 22 in the House Bill 277 that enabled regions to vote on the tax.
Todd Long, director of planning for the Georgia Department of Transportation, said the intent of HB 277 and the statewide transportation plan was to “take care of what we have first.” In other words, the idea was to help pay for existing transit operations.
But there was one glaring exception. MARTA would not be able to use any of the new sales tax revenue to pay for its existing operations.
Long admitted that the MARTA exemption was in “direct conflict with what was laid out in the statewide bill.” He said the problem was that there were lots of last minute amendments to the bill.
For GRTA, the regional sales tax poses a different problem. It currently operates in 13 counties that reside in four different planning regions. To continue providing its current level of service, the transportation bill would need to pass in four different regions. (The Atlanta Regional Commission does cover 10 of those counties).
GRTA’s situation only demonstrates what a difficult problem we have as a region in providing transportation options to people living in metro Atlanta.
Once again, when we should be doing everything we can to encourage people to use public transportation rather than be solo drivers on Atlanta’s crowded roads, we are having to cut transit service or raise fares or both.
And that’s no way to run a railroad, a bus system, a region or a state.