MARTA’s financial plan for serving Clayton County activated by Saturday vote to set proposed tax at 1 percent

By David Pendered

The finances of the planned expansion of MARTA service in Clayton County gained clarity after Clayton’s Board of Commissioners voted Saturday to put a proposed 1 percent transit tax on the November ballot.

MARTA's proposed bus service in Clayton County would service these routes in 2016. Credit: MARTA

MARTA’s proposed bus service in Clayton County would service these routes in 2016. Credit: MARTA

That’s because the 1 percent tax rate activates a feasibility study by MARTA, which envisioned only the 1 percent tax rate and not the 0.5 percent rate the board initially approved this week. The cost of rail expansion remains a significant variable in MARTA’s plan.

If MARTA could share existing tracks with Norfolk Southern, the cost of constructing a rail transit system would be $185 million less than if MARTA builds tracks in the same freight corridor owned by Norfolk Southern.

The cost difference is to be covered with an additional $70 million in federal funding, and an additional $115 million in debt, according to MARTA’s feasibility study, dated July 2. The annual debt payment would range from $12 million to $14 million.

Incidentally, MARTA’s most recent credit rating action from Moody’s Investors Service warned of a possible downgrade of MARTA’s credit rating if it issues more debt.

Despite the financial challenges, the end result of expanding MARTA bus and train service into Clayton County will be worthwhile, according to advocates who support the proposed 1 percent tax rate.

“The community benefits from increased economic opportunities and access to transportation and jobs; the region wins; the business community wins, and ultimately the world wins,” Deborah Scott, executive director of Georgia Stand Up said Saturday.

One thing certain is that the planned bus service will immediately incur more than $17 million in capital expenses, according to MARTA’s report. The report shows costs of:

  • MARTA's rail plan envisions this route. The cost diffential between sharing tracks with Norfolk Southern and building tracks in the same corridor is $185 million, according to a MARTA report. Credit: MARTA

    MARTA’s rail plan envisions this route. The cost diffential between sharing tracks with Norfolk Southern and building tracks in the same corridor is $185 million, according to a MARTA report. Credit: MARTA

    Buses:

  • Local bus vehicles – 32 vehicles at $500,000 each: $16 million;
  • Flex bus vehicles – five vehicles at $125,000 each: $625,000;
  • Paratransit vehicles: 10 vehicles at about $100,000 each: $1 million.
  • Bus stops, shelters and amenities: $1 million a year for 10 years: $10 million.

MARTA also envisions an operations center in Clayton County. The projected total cost is $26.3 million, for land acquisition, design and construction.

This is the description of the operations center contained in the feasibility study:

  • “A maintenance/dispatch/bus fueling and security facility on approximately 10 acres of land fully fenced and lighted with secured access to support a 70-plus bus fleet with an 11,000 square foot building capable of housing at 150-plus staff for maintenance, operations and police will be constructed by 2020. Fuel facility would include three Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) pumps housed in a separate (but on-site) 3,600 square foot facility.”

The feasibility study shows major funding sources during the first decade is to include the proposed transit tax, the federal government, and debt. Here’s how the figures break out:

  • Proposed transit tax – $464.2 million;
  • Federal funding – from $138.3 million to $208.3 million, with the lower estimate set to implement the shared rail system;
  • Debt: $55 million to $170 million, with the lower debt set to implement the shared rail system.
  • Farebox recovery: Bus – $46.4 million; Rail – $13.5 million.

The feasibility study does not contain any projections for federal assistance for maintenance and operations. That’s because the figures are based on ridership estimates, which the study says are not yet available:

  • “Once ridership estimates can be prepared with a reasonable degree of accuracy, estimates of annual federal funding for operations and maintenance will be included in the financing plan.”

Scott has long maintained that the details can be worked out so that Clayton residents can have access to MARTA service:

“Clayton County is home of the world busiest airport, and after over 40 years plus, residents of Clayton County will finally get to ride the bus and one day the train to work there,” Scott said Saturday. “This is progress. However slow, we are moving in the right direction.”

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. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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