State needs to stop plotting takeovers of MARTA and Hartsfield-Jackson airport

Enough already.

State legislators need to stop trying to take control of MARTA or Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Some legislators just don’t get it. They keep orchestrating plots or plans or bills for the state to take over our largest public transit system and the world’s busiest airport.

These are the same state leaders who have done virtually nothing to support either.

MARTA is the largest transit system in the United States that does not receive financial support from the state.

But are thse state legislators trying to fix that problem? Of course not. All they keep trying to do is find more ways to meddle in the agency’s business.

The ringleader in state control of both MARTA and the airport is Rep. Earl Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs), who for some reason has made it his mission in life to destroy the notion of local control when it comes to the urban areas of Atlanta.

Among his partners in these hostile takeover attempts have been State Rep. Bob Smith (R-Watkinsville) ,who is the sponsor of House Bill 644 to take over the airport; and State Rep. Jill Chambers (R-Atlanta), who uses her position as chair of the MARTOC oversight committee as a platform to be a thorn in the agency’s side. In fact, she regularly calls for more state influence over MARTA.

Consider this.

The state of Georgia already has four state officials on its 18-member board: the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Transportation, the executive director of the Georgia Regional Transportation Association, the Georgia Building Authority and the Revenue Commissioner.

All these state officials have a vote on the MARTA board even though they don’t pay to play.

And MARTOC, the House oversight committee, also oversteps its bounds. It keeps demanding all sorts of records, studies and data from MARTA officials. Chairman Chambers sometimes acts as though she is MARTA’s boss, repeatedly making unfounded accusations against the agency, criticizing its operations and calling its leaders on the carpet.

Again, is Chambers offering the state’s assistance to help in MARTA’s financially-strapped operations? Quite the contrary.

So why does MARTOC even exist?

From what transportation officials can tell, no other transit authority in the country has to answer to a state legislative oversight body unless it’s a state authority.

The only way the state should have any say or oversight of MARTA is if it’s a significant financial contributor. Otherwise, it should stay out of MARTA’s business.

Now I’m not saying that there should be no oversight of MARTA. Quite the contrary. It is one of the most important assets in metro Atlanta, and everything should be done to make sure it is operating efficiently and effectively.

But that oversight belongs to the people in the three governmental jurisdictions that support it: Fulton County, DeKalb County and the city of Atlanta. For nearly 40 years, people living and working in those jurisdictions have been paying a penny sales tax to build and support the system.

Those are the only governments with moral perogative to make sure MARTA is as good as it can be.

So how depressing is it that MARTA has to go begging to the state for the flexibility to be able to spend the money it raises where it’s most needed.

All MARTA has been asking the state is to remove an archaic rule that mandates that the agency split its sales tax — 50 percent for capital improvements and 50 percent for operations. Since MARTA is not expanding, it would like to spend more on its operations.

No other transit system in the country has to live within similar constraints, even where state governments contribute a substantial amount of annual operating support.

In a rational world, the only justifiable move would be for the state to totally divorce itself from any say-so over MARTA’s operations.

Or the state could finally become a true partner with MARTA by providing a substantial financial assistance in the annual operations of our major public transit system. Then, and only then, should the state play any role in the governance and oversight of MARTA.

The argument for the state to take control over Hartsfield-Jackson makes even less sense, if that’s possible.

After all, what role did the state play in the building, financing and development of the airport? None.

It has been the city of Atlanta, under the leadership of multiple mayors including Williams Hartsfield and Maynard Jackson, that had the leadership, took the risks and made the financial investment to create the world’s busiest airport.

And who has benefited by the city of Atlanta’s foresight, commitment and dedication to air travel? The state of Georgia.

Economic development officials will be quick to tell you that, more often than not, the top reason companies move or expand in Georgia is Hartsfield-Jackson. So the ripples of the city of Atlanta’s investment in the airport have been felt throughout the state.

But instead of thanking the city for building and managing the airport, state legislators have repeatedly sought an unfriendly takeover of Hartsfield-Jackson.

It makes no sense. It’s not as if the state has proven to be such a great manager of its entities. Think the Georgia Department of Transportation, widely viewed as a bloated agency that has been unable to deliver projects within budget or within any kind of reasonable timetable.

It’s not just MARTA and the airport. Unfortunately, one could make a similar case about the state’s limited financial role in a host of metro institutions, such as Grady Hospital — a centerpiece of the state’s public health system.

There’s a common theme. In life, there are givers and there are takers.

The state of Georgia is a taker. Under its current leadership, it’s clear that key Georgia leaders just care about power and control rather than doing what’s right for our region and our state.

Until the state begins treating the Atlanta region with economic fairness and until the state becomes a real partner in our future vitality, it should leave us alone.

Enough already.

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.

12 replies
  1. Richard E. Hodges says:

    Maria Saporta has once again presented in masterful fashion an “on targe” critique of the Georgia General Assembly and some of its “leaders” regarding an appalling lack of vision on vital matters of transportation progress, in this case MARTA and the Jackson-Hartsfield International Airport. These two major transportation institutions, challenged, but largely successful, have had little to no significant support from the State government over the years, yet both have been essential components of the economic growth of metro Atlanta, and in countless ways, the rest of Georgia. How much longer must Georgians put up with small-minded, power-seeking, vision-lacking representatives whose interests all too often are not those of their constituents?? We can only hope for better days ahead.Report

  2. John McCay says:


    I have always been a huge fan of yours, but you really knocked this one out of the park!

    I may be time for MARTA to just thumb its nose at these fools. Ignore them, go their own way and sue if need be to unlock the dollars that are rightfully theirs to spend.

    Perhaps it’s time to refuse to accept transfers from GRTA Express buses? It’s probably time to get militant, and declare war on the State. Perhaps the national media spotlight might shame them, but I doubt it.

    I agree totally though – enough is enough!Report

  3. Alan Yorker says:

    As usual, Maria, you have the issue well in your sights and totally on target. Why this state doesn’t “get it” always puzzles me, unless I get cynical and ascribe it all to greed for money and power, instead of us having leadership with vision and the people’s true wellbeing in mind. How sad that this great State of Georgia, The Empire State of the South, should be demoted to second tier status due to our political and asphalt transportation gridlock!Report

  4. Maria Saporta says:

    Well, my friends. If we all get “it,” hope is not lost. We need to figure out how to make the leaders in our state better understand that it is in their best interest for Atlanta to prosper. Open to any and all ideas. In the meantime, please tell your friends about SaportaReport.comReport

  5. Quinn Hudson says:

    These attacks on the city of Atlanta remind of the times not long ago when the first bill to be introduced in the General Assembly each Session was to abolish the City of Atlanta. Many outback legislators would attack the capital city as a way of pandering to the folks back home. This was a lot easier than adequately funding equal education and access. Besides, once the bill was introduced, this left a plenty of time to enjoy the physical pleasures at the old Grady Hotel. Indeed this bash Atlanta approach was used by Ole Gene Talmadge to get elected several times to the governership with the campaign slogan, “I don’t want any votes from cities that have trolleys.” Of course, only the city of Atlanta had public transit.

    “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”


    • Maria Saporta says:

      How fun, you’re the first person to comment in French. And you provided a great historical perspective to boot.
      For those of you who don’t know French, the translation is: “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”
      Merci bien (if only I could learn how to type in all the right French punctuation).

  6. EB says:

    how did the state end up with any power over MARTA funding in the first place? They don’t want to support it financially, but they want to control it. I don’t speak French, but … yeah, what that guy above said.Report

  7. Roger Coley says:

    I’ve been living in Atlanta for almost 15 years now after moving from NYC. One of the things that attracted me to Atlanta was a transportation system that appeared to be growing. Marta had just completed the East Line, and the North Line was under construction to North Springs. The Olympics came, MARTA handled the job well, and I was optimistic. Plans for commuter rail and expansion of MARTA looked promising. A new multimodal terminal for rail and bus for downtown was ready to be built.

    Then the 2002 elections came and all plans eventually came to a standstill – even though the general public cried out for new transit solutions.

    It is a utter downright shame that state government continues to bicker and argue over who controls what when it comes down to transit in Georgia. By not coming to at least a compromise on transit funding, the good ole boys under the Dome continue to make us here in Georgia look like we are nothing but fools. It’s like breaking a bone and instead of setting it, allowing the patient to continue to suffer in pain.

    State government knows exactly what to do, but they don’t have the courage, and won’t compromise because everyone has their own agenda. All that does is hurt the citizens of this once great state.

    When it comes to living here, I sometimes feel like I’m in a marriage where I love my wife, but I need to leave her because she is hurting me. Eventually, I will have no choice but to leave.

    Will the same thing happen to businesses and others affected by this situation? Probably.Report


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