Plan for big changes at MARTA receives little push-back, except from union; ready for vote at Capitol
By David Pendered
The most significant proposal in decades to reform MARTA is sailing through the legislative process at the state Capitol and could be up for a vote in the House as early as next week.
So far, no serious objections to the proposal have been raised in public by MARTA or the three governments that control MARTA – Atlanta, and Fulton and DeKalb counties, though union has voiced opposition. The sponsor said the bill intends to help MARTA serve its current and future riders.
“I hope that the bill is received in the way it is intended – and that is to improve MARTA’s financial conditions so that we can, hopefully, see some future expansion of the system,” said Rep. Mike Jacobs (R-Brookhaven), who chairs the MARTA oversight committee.
House Bill 264 was approved Thursday by the House Transportation Committee. That sets it up for consideration by the full House after it is put on the calendar by the Rules Committee. The Rules Committee did not post the bill on the chamber’s Feb. 19 calendar, and the committee is to meet that day to set the calendar for future votes.
HB 264 is unusually long – 22 pages – and each is needed to flesh out all the concepts outlined in the preamble of a bill that, if enacted, would take effect Jan. 1, 2014.
The preamble alerts readers that the bill will address 20 separate objectives, and it starts out big: “To amend the [MARTA act] so as to extensively revise such act.”
The aspirations outlined at the conclusion are equally expansive: “And for other purposes.”
In between the beginning and the end, the 18 points address issues about MARTA’s management that have been discussed since at least 1999. That’s the year the Legislature created GRTA, and its very existence refocused attention on the oversight and management MARTA.
For example, GRTA has outsourced the operations of the Xpress bus service. That has long begged the question: If a state entity can outsource jobs, why can’t MARTA outsource some jobs in order to cut costs?
The labor issue is significant for MARTA, which inherited a labor union when it was created from the remains of a prior bus system that served Atlanta. Legacy costs are as much a part of MARTA’s struggles with its balance sheets as they are for many governments across the country.
In a report released last autumn, outsourcing was among the recommendations of the extensive KPMG performance evaluation of MARTA that was initiated by MARTA’s board of directors. And it also raised the profile of federal laws that require MARTA to provide certain benefits to those jobs now covered by collective bargaining – even after those jobs are outsourced.
Former MARTA CEO Beverly Scott told the Legislature’s MARTA oversight committee in October that “there has to be some change” in the legacy pension structure. About 3,000 of MARTA’s 4,500 employees are members of Amalgamated Transit Union No. 732, according to the audit.
Jacobs said the original bill has been tweaked to accommodate the federal law. MARTA would lose some federal funding, if not all of it, if it were not compliant with the requirements of the federal Department of Labor.
“Obviously we want to help MARTA achieve the cost savings that needs to be achieved in the employee benefits realm,” Jacobs said. “But we do not want to put MARTA’s federal funding at risk.”
The bill would have grievances heard by an arbitrator appointed by the governor who is a retired judge of superior court, court of appeals, or state supreme court.
Jacobs said the proposed law, if enacted, would be “strongly advisory” over the collective bargaining negotiations slated to occur later this year between MARTA and the union.
The bill requires the county delegations to represent various geographic regions. Two of Fulton’s three representatives would be required to reside north of Atlanta’s city limits and be appointed by mayors of the cities in north Fulton. One must reside in south Fulton, and be appointed by the mayors of the cities of south Fulton and the county’s board of commissioners. Currently, all appointees are made by the county commission.
For DeKalb, the bill would move one appointment from the county commission to the mayors of cities located wholly in DeKalb — meaning Atlanta doesn’t have a seat at that table. Currently, all four of the county’s MARTA representatives are appointed by the county commission.