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David Pendered

Legislature OKs $8.1 million for Xpress buses, stalls MARTA reorganization plan until next year

MARTA news

By David Pendered

Two transit measures that are important to metro Atlanta commuters were resolved when the state Legislature ended its 2013 session late Thursday.

Xpress route map

Xpress buses serve 2 million riders a year in 12 metro Atlanta counties. Credit: Xpress.com

The Xpress bus service received $8.1 million in funding, which will enable the commuter bus program operated by GRTA to continue its service through the fiscal year that begins July 1. An additional $567,000 will keep buses running through June 30.

A proposal to reorganize MARTA and privatize some of its operations stalled in the Senate and is eligible for reconsideration in the Legislature’s 2014 session.

Gov. Nathan Deal included the Xpress funding in his initial budget recommendation in January.

The way Deal’s budget writers inserted the funding has long-term implications for state funding of the regional transit program.

The Xpress funding was added into an area of the budget that historically is continued from year to year. The amounts of money provided vary over time. But once a program is funded through the state’s “continuation budget” mechanism, the program itself becomes difficult for its political foes to reduce significantly – or even to eliminate.

The $567,000 was provided through an addition to the budget for the current fiscal year, 2013. It will enable service levels to be maintained at existing levels through June 30. Without the money, Xpress was on track to run out of money sometime in June.

The money is intended to offset the loss of local funds from counties, as well as federal funds allocated through the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program.

Deal did not trumpet the Xpress funding. The governor addressed his transportation philosophy in his budget presentation:

  • “In addition to building a globally competitive workforce, we must continue to make strategic investments in economic development, natural resources and transportation across the state to remain a competitive destination for business and grow high-skilled, well-paying jobs for Georgians.”

The Xpress funding came under attack from transit advocates who challenged a transit funding approach that provided state money for regional transit but not for MARTA.

The main objectives of the advocates was to derail the MARTA reorganization bill.

The MARTA proposal, House Bill 264, failed to pass this year and will be up for reconsideration when the Legislature reconvenes in 2014.

Whether the bill’s failure was due to the protests of the transit advocates who were working with the union, or due to political considerations such as Atlanta’s role in securing funding for a new Falcons stadium, remains a matter known only to those involved in the negotiations.

Rep. Mike Jacobs (R-Brookhaven), the bill’s sponsor, had offered a number of concessions – including an offer to remove the privatization proposal. One thing Jacobs declined to budge on was the bill’s plan to reduce the power of the county commissions of Fulton and DeKalb to appoint directors to MARTA’s board and shift those appointee to the newly formed cities in the two counties.

Jacobs said in the waning days of the session that he expects HB 264 to be reconsidered in the 2014 session.

David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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  1. Aristippus March 29, 2013 1:53 pm

    So the state legislature is willing to fund busses that service the relatively affluent suburban residents, but won’t fund the backbone of the Atlanta’s public transit. It’s no longer that the state representatives are unfriendly to transit in general, now they’re only opposed to transit that doesn’t serve their constituents. Maybe the city needs to elect Republic representatives to get MARTA funded.Report

  2. Bob March 29, 2013 6:03 pm

    The backbone is in such bad shape that $8.1 M would be absorbed like a drop of water on a sponge…with no discernible result.Report

  3. Willard March 30, 2013 10:40 am

    Next year have Ride MARTA to the Capitol Day for all the legislature so they can experience a MARTA ride- I am just thinking most of them have never been on MARTA? A city the size of ATL must have a better rapid transit system that goes further than it does now!Report

  4. The Last Democrat in Georgia March 30, 2013 4:22 pm

    @ Aristippus, March 29, 2013 at 1:53 pm-

    {{“So the state legislature is willing to fund busses that service the relatively affluent suburban residents, but won’t fund the backbone of the Atlanta’s public transit. It’s no longer that the state representatives are unfriendly to transit in general, now they’re only opposed to transit that doesn’t serve their constituents.”}}

    Your sentiments are pretty accurate as, to an extent, the State Legislature is not necessarily opposed to transit that doesn’t serve their constituents as much as they are for something, anything, that makes them appear as if they are doing at least the bare minimum on transportation, an issue that the state has infamously neglected and mishandled over the years.

    The main reason that the State Legislature has elected to extend funding to GRTA Xpress regional commuter buses, at the very least, is because 2014 is a statewide election year and Governor Nathan Deal is running for re-election and absolutely must have the votes of those affluent suburban residents that absolutely dominate the state’s political scene at the moment by way of the Republican Primary and in general elections in case the election, in which he (Governor Deal) is currently unchallenged by both Republicans and Democrats, suddenly becomes a close political contest.

    Despite the seemingly often-prevalent hostility to transit in general outside of Fulton and DeKalb counties, letting the GRTA Xpress commuter bus service run out of funding and cease operations would have potentially had a very-negative political effect for Georgia Republicans because of their repeated failures on the transportation issue since they took control of the state’s political scene after the 2002 elections.

    Letting GRTA Xpress cease operations due to a lack of funding would have furthermore greatly angered those important affluent suburban voters who already perceive the state government to be doing absolutely nothing useful about their crappy daily commutes in very-heavy traffic to and from work.

    Keeping GRTA Xpress buses running between the outer suburbs and job centers in the urban core at least gives those affluent suburban voters who are so key to the GOP’s electoral success no reason to think about either not showing up to vote for Deal or for someone else in a close electoral contest.

    With their almost total failure to even reasonably or minimally manage the state’s worsening transportation issues, particularly with regards to the fast-growing Atlanta Region, and despite their traditional hostility to all things transit-related, the Georgia GOP critically needs those GRTA Xpress suburban commuter buses to keep running to placate and passify a constituency of suburban voters that is beginning to get restless on transportation issues, especially in a political environment where Georgia’s quickly-changing demographics could potentially put the now-dominant GOP back on its heels in coming years.Report

  5. The Last Democrat in Georgia March 30, 2013 5:04 pm

    @ Willard, March 30, 2013 at 10:40 am-

    {{“Next year have Ride MARTA to the Capitol Day for all the legislature so they can experience a MARTA ride- I am just thinking most of them have never been on MARTA?”}}

    That’s an excellent idea, the only problem is that 2014 is an election year and the overwhelming majority of Republican lawmakers that totally dominate the Georgia Legislature would not be caught dead, much less in a photo op, on the much-derided MARTA which is anthema to much of the anti-transit ultraconservative Tea Party-dominated voting constituency outside of Fulton and DeKalb counties where transit is a dirty word and an extremely-abhorred concept in many quarters.

    Heck, the overwhelming majority of those Republican lawmakers would not show up for a “Ride MARTA to the Capitol Day” even if was not in an election year where ultraconservative anti-transit Tea Party interests dominate, particularly in the GOP Primary.

    But those Republican lawmakers especially will not be seen anywhere near MARTA or even saying anything remotely positive about MARTA in an election year where said GOP lawmakers are trying to avoid primary challenges from an increasingly volatile and rambunctious far political right which absolutely hates the concept of public funding of transit.Report

  6. The Last Democrat in Georgia March 30, 2013 5:17 pm

    @ Willard, March 30, 2013 at 10:40 am-

    {{“A city the size of ATL must have a better rapid transit system that goes further than it does now!”}}

    That is a very true statement, but don’t expect the 6 million-inhabitant Atlanta region to acquire much-improved transit service in the immediate future because of the dominance of a Republican supermajority in the Georgia Legislature that remains highly-skeptical and often very-hostile to the concept of transit, especially publicly-funded transit.

    Though, with the state’s continued mismanagement of transportation, particularly the refusal and inability to expand an overburdened road network (especially the Interstate network) and the accompanying neglected transit network which is severely underbuilt for a fast-growing metro region of 6 million people, one can likely expect the Federal Government to force the issue on increasing transit usage over the longer-term with the utilization of congestion pricing.

    Since the Georgia Department of Transportation both refuses and is seemingly unable to expand the Interstate network in an area that is of critical importance to the nation’s economy (as I-75 is a critical link between the fast-growing Port of Savannah, the tourism-driven resort area of Florida and the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes regions, and I-85 is a critical link between the oil and seafood-rich industrial areas of the Gulf Coast and the heavily-populated Mid-Atlantic and New England states) the Feds are going to be left with no choice but to clear the roads for critical interstate traffic (heavy freight truck and tourism traffic) through the use of congestion pricing in the form of adjustable tolls that push excess local traffic (primarily the single-occupant vehicle traffic that is most-prevalent on Metro Atlanta roads) so that through traffic can continue to flow for the benefit of the nation’s economy.

    In recent years, the Feds also expressed rising interest in increasing transit usage in one of the nation’s largest and fast-growing (and most transportation challenged) metro areas in the 6 million-inhabitant Atlanta region, which has one of the lowest rates of transit usage and one of the highest rates of single-occupant vehicle (SOV) use amongst major metro areas in the nation.

    The Feds see the utilization of congestion pricing as the primary way to boost transit usage over the long-term in an area that has traditionally been highly transit-averse but suffers from a very-limited surface road network and a built-out freeway system that are both extremely-constained in how much they can be further expanded, physically and politically.

    Congestion pricing projects like the controversial I-85 HOT Lanes, but on a much-larger scale as those lanes are only but a demo for a much-larger and much more all-encompassing system of adjustable tolls on all lanes of the Atlanta freeway system, are the future of transportation around these parts.Report

  7. The Last Democrat in Georgia March 30, 2013 5:37 pm

    Bob, March 29, 2013 at 6:03 pm-

    {{“The backbone is in such bad shape that $8.1 M would be absorbed like a drop of water on a sponge…with no discernible result.”}}

    Unfortunately, you are very much correct, sir.

    With long-term deficits of nearly $3 billion, $8.1 million would have no noticeable effect on the wayward finances of MARTA.

    Also, with a financial environment in which public funding for the most basic of government services is severely-scarce and a volatile political environment which is extremely-averse to the concept of public funding for existing or expanded transit service, the state cannot be counted on to provide public funding to MARTA.

    If we want to maintain, upgrade and expand transit service in the Atlanta region, then we have no choice but to utilize outside-the-box methods of transit funding and financing such as user fees (farebox revenues that cover up to 80% of the cost of operations and maintenance, as opposed to the 30% of O&M that MARTA covers with its existing farebox structure), Tax Increment Financing (revenues from property taxes from new development that pops up along transit lines) and private investment (leasing transit lines out to private investors so that the public does not have to pay to fund operations and maintenance).Report

  8. Burroughston Broch March 31, 2013 9:00 pm

    I haven’t run the numbers yet, but my guess is that GRTA is a much more cost-efficient operation than MARTA. Their bus ridership is increasing while MARTA’s is dropping.Report

    1. The Last Democrat in Georgia April 1, 2013 12:55 am

      No stations, no trains, no tracks = much less overhead for GRTA with only buses to maintain and operate.Report

      1. M Murphey April 1, 2013 1:12 pm

        No terminals, no routes(save for TEA-built highway infrastructure) an occasional transit vehicle…..er…isn’t this the model of…. ahem…..Ryanaer in europe, Meagbuss in US, and Amtrak?Report

      2. Burroughston Broch April 2, 2013 2:43 am

        Perhaps I didn’t express my point well. Let me try again.
        I suspect that GRTA operates at a lower cost per passenger than MARTA does in the bus portion of their system.
        Let’s leave rail out of it for now.
        What’s not to like about low overhead?Report

  9. The Last Democrat in Georgia April 1, 2013 3:09 am

    Also, even though state funding of GRTA Xpress buses may not necessarily be all that popular of a concept inside of I-285 where there is widespread unhappiness and dissatisfaction that the state does not fund MARTA, one should keep-in-mind that building ridership on regional commuter bus service like GRTA can build ridership for future regional transit service, like a large-scale expansion of what is currently known as MARTA or a future regional commuter rail system.

    Even though it may not seem fair to many inside of I-285 and inside of Fulton and DeKalb counties where MARTA is basically floundering, the continued operation of GRTA Xpress regional commuter bus service outside of I-285 is critical to building ridership and political support for a future overhaul and/or expansion of passenger rail-anchored transit throughout the Atlanta region, both to the politically-dominant areas OTP and the politically-activist areas ITP.Report


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