There’s a $1 billion shortfall looming in the More MARTA Atlanta transit expansion program, and it’s not because of rising construction costs and galloping inflation. It’s mostly of MARTA’s own creation by what they are choosing to fund with these limited dollars. But there is time to correct this problem and change priorities and assure that emphasis on capital projects (actually building transit) can happen and the entire program can be delivered sooner, not by mid-century as things stand now.
MARTA is announcing its budget for next year this week and the MARTA Board will vote soon to either adopt it or seek changes from its staff. MARTA’s proposed FY 2024 budget covering July 1, 2023, through June 30, 2024, allocates $347.6 million in sales tax revenue to operations and $347.6 million in sales tax revenue to capital. Sounds even, right? But there’s a problem. This 50/50 split does not apply to the portion of sales tax revenue in the budget that’s related to Atlanta’s expansion program, More MARTA.
City of Atlanta voters approved an additional half-penny sales tax for transit expansion in 2016 and in 2018 the MARTA Board adopted the More MARTA program to allocate the $2.7 billion anticipated 40-year revenue to 17 projects, including just $238 million (less than 9 percent) allocated for local bus service operations. This March, MARTA pared down expectations for the foreseeable future to a list of 9 “Tier 1” Atlanta expansion projects, blaming rising construction costs as the chief reason for the cutback, but misdirection of funds is the real culprit.
The More MARTA tax from Atlanta’s half-penny will bring in an anticipated $107.4 million in revenue next fiscal year. But only $53.7 million of it — More MARTA City of Atlanta “capital sales tax” — is shown in the proposed FY 2024 budget. The other 50 percent disappears into MARTA’s operating budget and is called “Bus Enhancements” in the quarterly progress reports MARTA started presenting to the City of Atlanta in May 2022. The MARTA Board never approved anything like this. And it should not allow this pattern of spending to continue.
The overall More MARTA Atlanta Program adopted by the MARTA Board in 2018 allocated over 90 percent of new revenue to capital projects, but year after year the MARTA budget keeps shifting 50 percent or more of Atlanta’s expansion funds to running the existing system. That missing 40 percent represents over $40 million lost for FY 2024, or $1 billion lost over 25 years. If the trend continues it could leverage federal grants for projects shunted to “Tier 2” including 4 BeltLine rail segments and the Westside Streetcar. These five projects deliver high-capacity transit and connections to existing MARTA stations to Atlanta’s southside and westside communities.
The audit of the More MARTA program underway at the City’s insistence will ultimately reveal just how much has been spent on service expansion, operations, and capital projects so far, but MARTA cannot wait for its outcome to begin changing the pattern of spending that led to this situation. Only by beginning that change now, with the FY2024 budget, can it assure a future for the Tier 2 projects.
Using money promised for More MARTA capital projects — think rail lines, rapid buses and infrastructure improvements — to plug holes in MARTA’s operating budget is the root cause of the $1 billion shortfall in Atlanta’s expansion program. The windfall has surely been good for MARTA’s credit rating and bond coverage ratio, but it’s been a rotten deal for the taxpayers of Atlanta. Through December 2022 the More MARTA Atlanta sales tax raised $444 million, with only $189 million at best held in reserves and no new project open.
It is the responsibility of the MARTA Board of Directors to correct course on the More MARTA Atlanta program by sending the proposed FY 2024 budget back to MARTA staff for revision and restoration of funds to the Atlanta capital expansion program. Voters approved the More MARTA program by a record 71 percent margin because of its ambitious transit expansion. It is wrong to push delivery of that expansion out more than a generation after the vote.
What is next? The second of two public hearings for MARTA’s Proposed FY 2024 Budget takes place on Thursday, May 18 online and at MARTA headquarters at 7 p.m., preceded by a Community Exchange at 6 p.m. I’ll be asking the MARTA Board to vote “no” on this proposed budget. Together we can make a difference by raising our voices. Will you join me?
The shell game they have been playing is borderline fraud, in my opinion, given how they promised voters things they never had any intention of doing, and once they got the funds rolling in, spent it on general revenue needs.
Having now seen this is how MARTA operates, how they managed to somehow cheat both Campbellton Road AND Clifton Road at the same time in the same way, the next tax referrended may not find any voters willing to throw away money on promises MARTA has no desire to keep. They lied to everyone this last time around. Voters are going to remember that. Riders trying to use the service, oh wait they canceled that bus trip, and the next one, and the next, what service was that again? Riders being left at the bus stops will remember.
Your visual is actually for FY23, not FY24. It should probably be updated. https://www.itsmarta.com/uploadedFiles/More/About_MARTA/FY%2024%20Budget%20One-Pager.pdf
Violation of public trust. Perhaps illegal? Marta Board is a FAIL.
Really good piece Michael, thank you. One worries about what the audit will show…I’m glad the city is finally engaging with these issues.
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