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MARTA priority project list coming soon, says transit agency head under City Council grilling

Collie Greenwood, MARTA's general manager and CEO, speaks at a Jan. 25 meeting of the Atlanta City Council Transportation Committee.

By John Ruch

Grilled by an Atlanta City Council committee worried about abrupt changes and lack of communication on Jan. 25, MARTA’s chief pledged a priority list of new transit projects is coming soon and strongly hinted what some may be.

MARTA General Manager and CEO Collie Greenwood also told the council’s Transportation Committee that the Atlanta Streetcar could partially return from an abrupt, safety-related halt as soon as March. And amid a disputed claim of an over $1 billion revenue shortfall in the “More MARTA” sales tax funding, he indicated it could be in that ballpark – and would be an improvement over larger gaps in the past.

Greenwood was called onto the committee’s carpet in response to comments from Josh Rowan, whose abrupt and still-unexplained firing as the transit agency’s deputy general manager on Jan. 5 came after only five months on the job. Rowan later made claims on LinkedIn about the alleged $1 billion-plus More MARTA shortfall and another $160 million gap in Clayton County transit revenue. MARTA has said those numbers are not accurate because internal modeling is still underway. All of that upheaval, combined with the backdrop of public frustration over changes in the More MARTA project list and delivery schedules, spurred the committee to question the lack of transparency and trust.

“I think the part that really gets me is the waning trust that something’s going to get done in a timely manner and what that means for the future of multimodal transit in our city,” said the committee chair, District 2 City Councilmember Amir Farokhi.

Greenwood said anyone feeling that way should “have faith” in MARTA’s time-consuming work on major transit projects. “I’m not asking you to just blindly trust me,” he added, but the public should understand that transit projects take many years to design and fund, and an intergovernmental agreement on a list only came in 2020.

Priority project list to come

A serious concern for the committee was what the reworked More MARTA project list and timing will be. “MARTA is aching to share that list,” Greenwood said, but will not yet because it is under review by the Project Governance Committee (PGC), a group consisting of representatives of the transit agency, the City and Atlanta BeltLine Inc. (ABI). That list could be finalized as soon as next week when a PGC meeting is scheduled, he said.

He said the list would include seven projects in two different tiers — apparently referring to funding and scheduling — and other projects in a third tier that are likely not to be immediately moving forward.

However, Greenwood also strongly hinted at some likely projects on the list. In explaining the general length of transit planning, he cited MARTA’s progress on some “key projects”: a Streetcar extension onto the BeltLine’s Eastside Trail; reconstructions of the Bankhead and Five Points stations; and new bus routes in Summerhill and on the Campbellton Road and Cleveland Avenue/Metropolitan Parkway corridors.

Further hints came when council President Doug Shipman pressed Greenwood on which projects are “at a point of no return” in terms of contracts or construction and thus “absolutely on the list.” Greenwood cited Bankhead Station and the Campbellton and Cleveland/Metropolitan bus projects as “not impossible” to stop, but “in terms of sunk costs, that tops my list in terms of things that are at a point of no return.”

In addition, he said, staff will begin seeking approval to issue requests for proposals to continue the Streetcar BeltLine extension planning at Jan. 26 meetings of MARTA Board of Directors committees. Carrie Rocha, MARTA’s interim chief capital officer, said the Streetcar extension is on the agenda for a Jan. 31 meeting of the Program Management Team, another group composed of MARTA, City and ABI officials.

Cost and revenue questions

Then there’s the question of paying for it all. Asked by Farokhi about the $1 billion shortfall claim, Greenwood noted its origin in Rowan’s post and said that internal modeling is not complete. But he also did not directly deny the estimate was produced by the model at some point and even suggested it could be a “good story” because it would be a smaller funding gap than before.

He noted that More MARTA, which voters approved in 2016, was “born in a funding gap.” An original list of 70 projects had an estimated cost of $12 billion, while the sales tax was projected to bring in $2.7 billion, he said. Since then, the project list has been trimmed to 17 with an estimated total cost of $4 billion. “So we’ve been in a funding gap since inception. We’re narrowing that,” he said.

MARTA previously said that it has retained the firm HDR to conduct the modeling of revenue and project cost projections. Greenwood said that work should be done by the end of the quarter – meaning March. But he also clarified that HDR is producing a “modeling tool” that will be done by the end, with a report using that tool to follow at some time to be determined. Pressed by District 6 Councilmember Alex Wan, Greenwood said only that he expects the report to come “early on” after the tool is complete.

Questioned about other funding concerns, Greenwood and Rocha said there has been no independent, third-party audit of More MARTA. And they could not immediately answer District 11 Councilmember Marci Collier Overstreet’s question as to whether More MARTA and Clayton transit funds are kept in separate accounts, though Rocha said the monies are “tracked” separately in accounting.

On the operational side, Greenwood spoke about the status of the Streetcar, which was abruptly yanked from service and replaced with shuttle buses in December for safety issues related to its wheels. Greenwood attributed the problem to a lack of maintenance devices dating to the Streetcar’s origins as a City-run service that MARTA later took over. The vehicles are now being repaired, and Greenwood said he expects one of them to be back in service in March.

March is also when Greenwood is due back at the committee for a regular quarterly report.

Transparency concerns

Councilmembers repeatedly pressed Greenwood for more transparency on More MARTA and related transit issues amid the confusion and in light of the fact that the general public and the council have no direct say in creating the final project list.

Farokhi noted the public hunger for information about the lack of information on projects and suggested the City was caught off-guard by the revenue shortfall claim. He noted that the City in recent years had to go through a similar remake of a project list for sales-tax-funded transportation projects, which was done deliberately with community meetings and other transparency guarantees. “I would encourage MARTA to do the same as quickly as possible,” he said.

Wan said he has “anxiety” about the lack of definite timing on getting a shortfall projection and how rumors spread in the gap after “a shot has been fired” by Rowan’s claims. He suggested that MARTA’s approach should be “just to rip the Band-Aid off” and be as transparent as possible.

Greenwood pushed back, emphasizing how project details, costs and funding sources change frequently. “I agree that random shots in the dark will happen,” he said. “We could shoot from the hip in response to that, but I think we have an obligation to keep it professional.”

Wan said he agrees, but that “we can’t wait for ‘perfect.’” He said the councilmembers are “cheerleaders” for MARTA expansion and noted that other jurisdictions considering joining the transit system are watching, so the agency should “err on the side of more information.”

“The best way we can convince them is by doing this right the first time,” he said.



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1 Comment

  1. Dana Blankenhorn January 27, 2023 11:58 am

    I have despaired of MARTA improving anything about our lives or ability to get from place to place.
    That will come from changing development patterns, density, and people using e-bikes.

    In other words not in my lifetime.Report


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