State should help MARTA to prevent traffic from getting worse

MARTA needs help.

The largest public transit agency in Georgia may have to dramatically cut service and raise fees and fares in July unless the state legislature votes to give MARTA more flexibility on how it spends its own money.

MARTA’s needs can’t be forgotten in all the legislative confusion surrounding the future of state’s transportation agencies and potential new funding for all modes of transport.

What MARTA is asking for at this time is minimal. It currently collects a penny sales tax in Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb, but an archaic state regulation stipulates that half must be spent on capital improvements and the other half on operations.

No other transit agency in the United States is saddled with such a requirement. That restriction prevents MARTA from being able to spend its money where it’s most needed. And today, that’s operations. Estimates show that MARTA is facing a $67 million shortfall in its current fiscal year that ends June 30.

That shortfall will virtually wipe out MARTA’s reserves. And the next fiscal year doesn’t look any better.

Removing the limitation on the penny sales tax is only a short-term fix. The ninth largest transit agency in the country will need an annual infusion of new dollars in the next couple of years to avoid having to cut service.

It goes without saying that cutting transit service would be foolish. MARTA is our best weapon in dealing with traffic congestion in the Atlanta region. Nearly a half million riders take MARTA each weekday, and any cut in service would only add to our congestion.

In fact, we desperately need to figure out how to expand transit and MARTA service in our region, but first things first.

First, let’s give MARTA control of its own purse strings. It is not a tax increase. It won’t harm the state in any way to let MARTA decide for itself how much of its existing penny sales tax to spend on operations.

MARTA also is asking the state for the ability to allow food and drink concessions in its rail and intermodal stations. This would be a way for MARTA to have one more revenue source. Again, it would cost the state nothing.

Those proposals are no brainers. Let’s hope they won’t get lost in the political storm surrounding the Capitol, because that the easy stuff.

The hard part will be to figure out — once and for all — how Georgia can start supporting MARTA and public transit all over the state.

MARTA is the largest transit agency in the country that does not receive annual operating assistance from its home state. MARTA also provides the transit backbone for the entire region, but only three local governments have been supporting the agency since its inception.

Both of those funding inequities need to be addressed some day soon.

MARTA General Manager Beverly Scott has called the current funding structure “inadequate” even in flush economic times. One possible solution would be for MARTA to morph into a new regional transit authority, but only if other metro counties contributed to the system.

The Transit Implementation Board, an outgrowth of the Transit Planning Board, has been working on possible regional governance models that would be tied to new transit funding.

The state House and Senate are considering two separate transportation funding bills that would require constitutional amendments that would have to be approved by voters.

This is a perfect opportunity to give voters an opportunity to fix the Consitution when it comes to the gas tax.

Currently, Georgia collects 7.5 cents on each gallon of gas sold, but the Constitution restricts that to just roads and bridges. Now is as good a time as any to permit our state transportation entity (whatever that might be in the future) the flexibility to invest in all modes of transportation.

It doesn’t stop there. There also is a state sales tax of 4 cents on gas purchases. Right now, three of those cents go to the Georgia Department of Transportation and one cent goes to the general fund.

Why not allow voters to decide whether that sales tax also could be invested in transit and alternative modes of transportation? In this day and age, it makes no sense for the state to be limited in spending its gas tax money on just roads and bridges.

The common theme here is give our transportation agencies the flexibility to spend money to meet the current needs.

Bill Kuhlke, chairman of the Georgia Department of Transportation who is from Augusta, understands the problem.

“We are not going to cure the problem of congestion in metro Atlanta by building roads,” Kuhlke said at a recent transportation summit. “Transit has got to be the answer.”

Let’s begin by giving MARTA the ability to manage its own money.

Then we should let voters decide whether to change the state Constitution to permit gas tax revenues to be spent on all modes of transportation.

And finally, let’s reach consensus on getting a new source of transportation funding that can be invested to support and expand transit in metro Atlanta.

Our region needs a financially viable MARTA.

And MARTA needs our help.

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.

4 replies
    • Maria Saporta says:

      Let’s hope our voices will do some good. Unfortunately, the news I’m hearing from the state capitol today shows that we still have a ways to go. Report

      Reply
  1. WestsideATL says:

    Maria, Jim Galloway’s blog reported yesterday on MARTA’s attempts to lobby for state support on cancellation of the 50/50 requirement on the sales tax, legislation that’s been needed for some time now. While most of the public comments have been racist and downright offensive to most, there were a few that speak to real problems at MARTA that should be addressed before they are given more spending authority. I’ll quote the most pertinent:

    MARTA Insider: “Before Beverly Scott cries poor to the public, she’d better be prepared for an independent audit of hew own shop. Since she arrived over a year ago, she has DOUBLED the number of Assistant General Managers beneath her plus added ANOTHER LAYER OF EXECUTIVE MANAGEMENT between the, and her. There have been SUBSTANTIAL PROMOTIONS of unqualified staff and a whole new crew of yes-men and yes-women who will not challenge any of her demands. All of these new executive staffers are losers and rejects from other transit agencies who were either fired or on their way to being fired from their previous jobs. The whole place is corrupt and the morale is in the can. The AJC or the state or someone needs to look into this. The hard working staff on the front lines are facing furloughs while these new fat cats bring home $200K a year. There’s easily $5 million in new salaries and benefits between these new positions.”

    Given the recent happenings with Merrill Lynch and AIG where taxpayer’s money has gone to frivolous expenditures (ahem, toilets) and executive bonuses we need to be more attentive to our public agencies as well. Now is the time to tighten our collective belts and make sure we are getting our money’s worth.

    A question to you Maria – I know you’ve always been a conscientious reporter, particularly on issues related to public transportation. It’s been a year and a half since Dr. Scott was brought on as GM, but curiously she has not recieved nearly the amount of criticism as did her predecessors. Is anyone willing to take MARTA and Dr. Scott to task and ask for some accountability on these matters, or is she still on as they say, a “Honeymoon”, as it relates to the media? Based on the comment from Jim’s blog, it sounds like the “honeymoon” has long been over for her staff.Report

    Reply
    • Maria Saporta says:

      Dear WestsideAtl,
      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. First of all, I would want to double-check whether MARTA Insider is sharing solid information. I’ve been able to see several presentations of MARTA’s financials from Beverly Scott in the past several months, and she makes a strong argument about how MARTA has been cutting back significantly its operating costs.
      I don’t have specifics to share, though I’ll be happy to see what I can find out.
      Still, that is a separate issue of the 50/50 split. Why should the state, which contributes virtually nothing to the operations of MARTA, have the power over the system to mandate how it spends money that is collected solely from three jurisdictions — Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb. No other transit in the system in the United States has such a restriction. I strongly believe it is unfair to the taxpayers in the region for the state to have such control without contributing to the system.
      These are separate issues, and they should be treated as such.
      Out of curiosity, have you asked Beverly Scott any of your questions directly? I think you would be pleasantly surprised at her willingness to answer your questions and concerns.
      MariaReport

      Reply

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