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

By John Ruch

Winning its battle for a “More MARTA” program audit, the Atlanta City Council is now pressing the advantage for more scrutiny with a call for a disadvantaged businesses program, as current transit agency targets appear to be well below the City’s.

MARTA has disputed that assertion.

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

A copy of MARTA General Manager and CEO Collie Greenwood’s letter to the Atlanta City Council confirming a “More MARTA” audit.

Earlier this month, the council – in collaboration with the Mayor’s Office – approved a resolution calling for improved More MARTA transparency, including an audit. MARTA responded with a press release blasting the call as “disappointing and disingenuous” and telling councilmembers to “get out of the way.” The transit agency claimed an audit would force a halt to the program.

Days later, MARTA backed down, with General Manager and CEO Collie Greenwood saying he was willing to perform any audit to satisfy the council. He formally promised the audit will happen in a March 29 letter to the council and its president, Doug Shipman, issued just before the Transportation Committee meeting that morning.

“MARTA agrees that periodic financial audits are a part of good fiscal management and will ensure the taxpayers that monies intended for the More MARTA program are spent responsibly,” wrote Greenwood.

Greenwood noted that an intergovernmental agreement (IAG) between MARTA and the City has no audit provisions and authorizes reporting to the mayor, not to the council. He said, “MARTA will work with the mayor to select a mutually agreed-upon financial auditing firm, agreed-upon procedures, as well as an equal burden of the costs between MARTA and the City of Atlanta.”

Greenwood also said that MARTA will prepare a “formal response” to the council’s information demands that would not be covered by a financial audit – “namely on topics of enhanced bus service, Atlanta Streetcar operations and the development of the More MARTA capital program list.”

At the Transportation Committee meeting, the news was welcomed by District 11 Councilmember Marci Collier Overstreet, who has long pushed for financial numbers. “… I for one am happy that we are now in the posture of receiving a proper audit and ongoing audits,” she said, emphasizing the reports must be ongoing. “And all I need at this point is for MARTA to work with Atlanta…  its largest base of revenue in the entire system. And the fact that our residents are paying into MARTA and making MARTA so means that confidence needs to be there. Audits will do that.”

District 12 Councilmember Antonio Lewis also welcomed the news, but criticized MARTA’s earlier response. “The reaction from the agency has been like a personal reaction,” he said, adding that its statement “read almost like a threat.”

“They even put it on Instagram,” Lewis said, adding that he wants to see audit numbers “quicker than that response on Instagram.”

That’s not all the committee wants. It also recommended approval of a new resolution, presented by Shipman, calling for the transit agency to create a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) program for More MARTA to boost participation by women- and minority-owned small businesses in project contracts.

Shipman pointed to a recent MARTA report on DBE participation in five planning and bus stop contracts, saying its goals and outcomes were often lower than the City’s 30 percent standard. The standards and results in the report varied widely, bottoming out with goals of 20 percent and participation of 7 percent, but also goals as high as 30 percent and participation at 127 percent. However, Shipman said his own math, weighted for actual spending, found those five contracts averaged out to 22 percent DBE dollar-for-dollar contracting. In addition, the presentation showed one More MARTA project – Summerhill bus rapid transit – has a DBE target of 15 percent.

“I think it’s important that MARTA regularly reports DBE accomplishments within More MARTA specifically,” Shipman later told SaportaReport. He noted that Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport already makes such reports, so the intent is to “raise [More MARTA DBE] to that level of scrutiny.”

The proposal got the committee’s attention. Lewis called Shipman’s 22 percent figure “horrible,” though he appeared to misunderstand it as applying to More MARTA projects specifically when they appeared to be more general.

However, MARTA is challenging the assertions and saying it also is prohibited from changing its goals. Stephany Fisher, a spokesperson for the transit agency, said its DBE goal for federal fiscal years (FFY) 2021-2023 is 23 percent, calculated under a methodology required by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). “The DBE goal calculation was reviewed and approved as correct by the FTA and under these parameters, we do not have the ability to pick a new DBE goal,” said Fisher. “To do so would jeopardize our projects.”

In addition, Fisher said, MARTA’s “actual DBE goal achievement” was 26 percent for FFY 2021 and 28.2 percent for FFY 2022. She also said MARTA’s goal “is higher than many other agency DBE goals in our region” and that all are based on the same directory for calculations. Among the agencies and goals she cited were Georgia Department of Transportation at 13.43 percent (FFY 2021-2023); Cobb County at 11.17 percent (FFY 2021-2023); Gwinnett County at 6.71 percent (FFY 2023-2025); Atlanta at 9.62 percewnt (FFY 2021-2023); and the airport at 28.65 percent (FFY 2023-2025).


Update: This story has been updated with comment from MARTA.

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