A new MARTA rail car as unveiled in a December 2022 event. (Photo by Kelly Jordan.)

By John Ruch

A war of words has erupted between MARTA and the Atlanta City Council as councilmembers are demanding an audit of the largely stalled “More MARTA” expansion program and the transit agency says the politicians should “get out of the way.”

Meanwhile, former MARTA Deputy General Manager Josh Rowan — whose mysterious dismissal in January after a brief tenure was another source of trust issues — is siding with the City. He says it’s likely more projects will be cut from the project list amid the trickiness of estimating revenue and costs.

“The hostility [of MARTA] toward the City is troublesome and justifies an audit,” Rowan told SaportaReport. “…This is a time for transparency.”

The council and Mayor Andre Dickens have expressed frustration for months over the lack of progress on transit expansion funded by the 0.5 percent “More MARTA” sales tax approved by voters in 2016. MARTA has repeatedly pared down the list of priority projects and spent millions of the revenue on bus operations.

Rowan’s claim in January that MARTA was facing a $1 billion shortfall on the expansion program led to renewed, ongoing scrutiny from the council’s Transportation Committee. MARTA says its internal revenue and cost modeling is still underway, but has not denied that $1 billion was a number produced by that model at some point.

This week, the council approved a resolution calling for better transparency on “More MARTA,” including an audit that would be conducted by the City’s Department of Finance at its expense. That call was promoted in a March 23 press conference by council President Doug Shipman; District 2 Councilmember Amir Farokhi, who chairs the Transportation Committee, and District 11 Councilmember Marci Collier Overstreet.

“Confidence in public institutions, including this one right here, is paramount,” said Farokhi.

“Every part of Atlanta suffers if we don’t get this right,” added Overstreet.

The trio variously described the council’s relationship with MARTA as “strained,” “a bit contentious” and “temporarily stuck in the mud.” That was not improved by MARTA’s preemptive press statement, which blasted the council’s audit demand as a “stall tactic” that is “disappointing and disingenuous.”

MARTA said it has been audited many times and that the one the council wants would cause most “More MARTA” projects to be halted. Internal committees of MARTA, City and Atlanta BeltLine Inc. officials are reviewing the priority list changes, the transit agency noted, adding that it provides project updates to the City.

“MARTA has the funding, bandwidth, expertise, and a clear path forward. All that is missing is the political will,” said the transit agency. “…The best thing the politicians on council can do for their constituents in the City of Atlanta is to get out of the way and let MARTA deliver the projects.”

Shipman said at the press conference that he didn’t understand MARTA’s claim that an audit would require pausing work on projects. “I would like to understand why that’s the case,” he said.

“An audit would not stop the progress on the projects” and indeed “should become a recurring thing,” said Rowan.

Rowan says the transit agency should have an online dashboard clearly showing up-to-date revenue, cost projections and construction timelines for each More MARTA project. MARTA says it’s working on something like that, with an early version available online here.

But MARTA also continues to draw skepticism from the council, and sometimes its own Board of Directors, for lack of financial and planning details. One example came at the March 9 board meeting, where staff presented an update on a makeover of Downtown’s Five Points Station, a More MARTA priority project.

Keli Davis, director of the transit agency’s Facilities Capital Delivery Program, made the extraordinary claim of “100 percent” confidence that the complex project would be delivered by March 2026 if it begins this August. Teasingly asked by a board member about “wiggle room” in that estimate, Davis said it’s “about 5 percent.”

Collie Greenwood, MARTA’s general manager and CEO, stepped in to walk that back. “I love the confidence Keli is exuding there… but I will temper that with, we don’t know what the year or following year holds in terms of pandemic or supply chain issues…,” he said.

An underlying issue for MARTA is that sales tax is an especially unpredictable source of funding, and costs on such major projects also inevitably change – typically upward. Rowan, who was hired by MARTA to help prioritize those More MARTA projects, suggests the transit agency needed better estimates even in that world of what he calls “hocus-pocus” and “witchcraft,” and also did not move fast enough on construction.

Speaking before the council’s call for an audit, Rowan said it was “worrisome” that MARTA only recently engaged a consultant to create a modeling tool for revenue and costs. He also said that “there probably needs to be an independent verification of cost” on all of the projects except for the Summerhill bus rapid transit (BRT) line that recently began construction.

He emphasized the inherent unpredictability of major projects like Five Points Station – currently budgeted at nearly $260 million – where engineers often don’t know the whole story until work begins. “Things like taking the canopy off of Five Points, that is not simple at all,” he said.

The unpredictability of sales tax revenue affects cash flow, which in turn demands careful phasing of projects, Rowan said, adding he agrees with Shipman on the more steady idea of bond funding based on tax revenues. Rowan said that based on his experience in MARTA, he believes the current list of 17 projects – in two tiers of greater and lesser priority – likely will change.

“I don’t think the cash will be there to move eight projects simultaneously,” he said, noting that one recent MARTA presentation showed a completion date for one of the priority projects – Summerhill BRT. “I think it’s inevitable that the 17 is going to have to be pared down to a lesser number. I don’t think it’s gonna be two phases where phase one is nine and phase two is eight. I think reality is at best it will be those nine [on a current priority proposal]. It might have to drop even a little more.”

Rowan says that in such a volatile environment, maintaining public trust is important. One way is simply gaining momentum by building quickly. He said his proposal for a quick kickoff was Summerhill BRT, the Atlanta Streetcar extension on the Atlanta BeltLine’s Eastside Trail, and Campbellton Road corridor BRT, as revenue for all those appeared to be solid.

While praising the skills of MARTA’s staff, Rowan says the phasing plan “just stayed in a holding pattern” while he was there. He declined to go into details but said he liked a recent quote in a SaportaReport column from another former MARTA deputy general manager, who said it’s important to get beyond planning and “take the bull by the horns” to building something.

“I think you see what grabbing the bull by the horns gets you,” said Rowan. “I’m sitting in my living room watching Netflix.”

Then there’s the transparency issue – something Rowan is familiar with as former manager of the City’s Renew Atlanta bond and transportation special local option sales tax (TSPLOST) programs, which went through similar chaos on failed promises and funding gaps.

“My message to all Atlantans is, the only sure thing is that change is going to happen on all of these [projects],” said Rowan of the MARTA list. “The lessons that I learned [in the City program] is the strongest tool that a public official has to garner public support is transparency… Transparency never failed me.”

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