MARTA’s new five-year fiscal plan sees less pain and balanced budget

By Maria Saporta

When Keith Parker, MARTA ‘s general manager, came on board in December, the prospects for the transit system were dire.

The MARTA board had adopted a five-year budget plan that called for no salary increases for employees — continuing a practice that has been in place for five years. It called for a 25-cent fare increase in fiscal year 2014 (which begins in July) increasing MARTA’s base fare to $2.75 — among the highest transit fare in the country. It projected reserves declining from $109.7 million in fiscal year 2013 to $1.5 million at the end of fiscal year 2018. And it still expected that it would face an unsustainable healthcare business model.

On Thursday morning, however, Parker and his staff presented an alternate five-year plan to the MARTA board’s Business Management Committee — one that has a much brighter outcome for the transit system.

The plan that Parker and Davis Allen, the transit system’s chief financial officer who soon will be taking on new duties as the project management director exploring privatization opportunities, presented included:

–       implementing an employee incentive payment plan

–       re-opening restrooms

–       having healthcare reform

–       not increasing fares in fiscal year 2014

–       enhancing security throughout the system

–       having merit increases for employees

–       restoring service to the system

–       balancing the budget without depleting reserves

“We want to be the regional transit provider of choice,” Parker said. “The whole goal is to change the perception of MARTA.”

As of now, the five-year plan does anticipate having a 15-cent fare increase in fiscal year 2015, a 10-cent increase in fiscal year 2016 and a possible 10-cent increase in fiscal year 2018.

But Parker said that the plan that was presented on Thursday did not include possible new revenues from advertising, concessions and transit oriented developments. It also took a conservative approach in projecting its current revenues sources, such as the one-cent sales tax collected in Fulton and DeKalb counties.

At the very least, Parker said a fare increase would be tied to an increase in service. During the presentation, several board members said they were hoping that they would not have to increase the fares.

“We would like to avoid (a fare increase) completely especially one in fiscal year 2015,” Parker said in an interview after the board presentation. “They would like to see us find other ways to balance the budget without a fare increase.”

The five-year plan that was presented showed that MARTA should be able to operate within its means under its current structure and restrictions, such as a state mandate to spend 50 percent of its sales tax on operations and 50 percent on capital expenses.

“We have created a budget with the fiscal and legislative realities that we have today, Parker said.

But Parker added that it would really help if the state would permanently lift the 50/50 restriction so it could have greater budget flexibility and help it avoid having to raise fares.

“While this is a ‘good news’ budget, it does not take us to where MARTA needs to go,” Parker said. “We need a bigger footprint, and we need to go all over the region. To do that, we do need additional revenues. But we are proving with this effort that with existing revenues, we can make (our current system) work.”

The revised five-year budget, however, should give MARTA employees a greater sense of stability and pride. Because there are no big service cuts on the horizon, Parker said it will make MARTA more attractive to prospective and existing riders as well as new investors.

MARTA board member Jim Durrett applauded Parker and his team for the new five-year budget plan.

“I have always been proud of serving on this board,” said Durrett, who is also executive director of the Buckhead Community Improvement District. “But I’ve never been prouder of serving on this board than I am today knowing the hard work you have done preparing this road map.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

8 replies
  1. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    {{“But Parker added that it would really help if the state would permanently lift the 50/50 restriction so it could have greater budget flexibility and help it avoid having to raise fares.”}}
    …MARTA CEO Keith Parker is right that it would be good to have the greater budget flexibility that would come with having the 50/50 restriction removed or at least relaxed.
    Though having the 50/50 restriction removed or relaxed should not be about not having to raise fares, just as raising fares should not be about just barely keeping a greatly-struggling MARTA afloat financially. 
    Removing or relaxing the 50/50 restriction on sales tax revenues should be about helping MARTA get into good financial shape.
    Raising fares should be about bringing in the amount of revenue that is actually needed for MARTA to provide a very-high to excellent level of transit service to the people of metro Atlanta, not just merely about keeping a struggling agency afloat for another week or month.Report

    Reply
  2. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    The negative additude towards fare increases within the MARTA organization and within the Atlanta transit community at-large absolutely has to change.
    Fare increases should be a routine and very-common thing as the fare structure should stay consistent with operating costs so that the fare structure ALWAYS covers roughly up to 80% of operating costs through the revenues collected from a distance-based fare structure in which passengers pay by-the-mile instead of the current depressed one-way flat-rate fare structure.
    The other 20% of operating costs that is not covered by the revenues from a distance-based fare structure should be covered with Tax Increment Financing and revenues from real estate transactions like leasing out the land the agency owns around transit stations and along transit lines for the construction of highly-sustainable transit-oriented development near transit stations and along transit lines (both rail and bus).Report

    Reply
  3. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    {{“The MARTA board had adopted a five-year budget plan that called for no salary increases for employees — continuing a practice that has been in place for five years. It called for a 25-cent fare increase in fiscal year 2014 (which begins in July) increasing MARTA’s base fare to $2.75 — among the highest transit fare in the country.”}}
    …MARTA’s $2.75 flat-rate one-way transit fares are NOWHERE near being amongst the highest in the country and are a mere pittance when compared to zone fares that are as high as $6.75 one-way on Washington D.C.’s Metrorail heavy rail trains, distance-based zone fares that are as high as $9.25 one-way on Chicago’s Metra regional commuter trains, distance-based zone fares that are as high as $11.05 one-way on Northern California’s BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) regional heavy rail trains, distance-based zone fares that are as high as $11.75 on Chicago’s South Shore interurban commuter trains and distance-based zone fares that are as high as $33.00 one-way on New York’s Long Island Railroad regional commuter trains.Report

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  4. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    …In return for the much-higher fares found on other transit systems in other major metro areas (some of the ONE-WAY fares on the Long Island Railroad are as much as $30.25 HIGHER than MARTA’s $2.75 one-way fare), passengers get a much-higher level-of-service with headways that are as low as 2-3 minutes on some systems (like on Northern California’s BART regional heavy rail trains) and transit service with a much more comprehensive reach into and around their respective metropolitan regions (…Northern California’s BART trains provide regional heavy rail service as far away as 40 miles from the Financial District in Downtown San Francisco and as far as 50 miles away from San Francisco International Airport, Boston’s MBTA combination heavy rail/commuter rail trains provide transit service as far away as 70 miles from Downtown Boston, while New York’s Long Island Railroad provides rail transit service as far as 130 MILES AWAY from Manhattan).Report

    Reply
  5. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    {{“The MARTA board had adopted a five-year budget plan that called for no salary increases for employees — continuing a practice that has been in place for five years. It called for a 25-cent fare increase in fiscal year 2014 (which begins in July) increasing MARTA’s base fare to $2.75 — among the highest transit fare in the country.”}}
    Washington D.C.’s Metrorail zone-based fare structure in which transit fares are as high as $6.75 ($5.75 + a $1 surcharge if a paper farecard is used) for a one-way heavy rail ride:
    http://www.wmata.com/fares/metrorail.cfm
    Chicago’s Metra combination distance-based/zone-based fare structure in which transit fares are as high as $9.25 for a one-way regional commuter rail train ride of 65 miles:
    http://metrarail.com/metra/en/home/tickets.html?cq_ck=1251746486500#OneWayTicketReport

    Reply
  6. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    San Francisco’s BART combination distance-based/zone-based fare structure in which transit fares are as high as $11.05 for a one-way regional heavy rail train ride of almost 50 miles from the San Francisco International Airport to the Pittsburg/Bay Point Station:
    {{“$11.05 / $4.10* One-way from http://www.bart.gov/stations/PITT to http://www.bart.gov/stations/SFIA “}}
    http://www.bart.gov/tickets/calculator/index.aspx
    Chicago’s South Shore combination distance-based/zone-based fare structure in which transit fares are as high as $11.25 for a one-way regional interurban commuter rail train ride of nearly 100 miles from Millennium Station in Downtown Chicago to the South Bend, Indiana Regional Airport Station at the east end of the line:
    http://www.nictd.com/faretables.htmlReport

    Reply
  7. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    Boston’s MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority) combination distance-based/zone-based fare structure in which transit fares are as high as $14.00 for a one-way regional interurban commuter rail train ride of almost 70 miles from South Station in Downtown Boston’s Financial District to the Wickford Junction Station in North Kingstown, Rhode Island in the far-south suburbs of Providence, RI:
    http://www.mbta.com/fares_and_passes/rail/
    http://www.mbta.com/fares_and_passes/rail/#zonechart
    Southern California’s Metrolink distance-based fare structure in which transit fares are as high as $24.50 for a one-way regional commuter rail train ride of 155 miles from Oceanside, CA north of San Diego to Lancaster, CA the distant northern exurbs of Los Angeles:
    http://www.metrolinktrains.com/ticketspricing/pricefinderresults.html?from_station=111&to_station=102&fare_type=adult&viewticketoptions.x=133&viewticketoptions.y=18Report

    Reply

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