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Transportation bill gives transit and MARTA the short shrift, improvements needed in 2011

It’s just not good enough.

There’s a lot of self-congratulatory back patting going on in this town. After years of failed attempts, the Georgia legislature finally passed a bill that will allow 12 different regions in the state to pass a one-penny sales tax for their transportation needs.

But this bill is flawed. And patting ourselves on the back is premature at best.

The flaw? The bill falls short in helping the Atlanta region pay for its transit needs — arguably the greatest need that we have.

Then there’s the maliciousness of this bill against MARTA — the largest transit agency in the state and the one that is the backbone for all the other transit systems in the region.

What a disappointment House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones (R-Alpharetta) has turned out to be.

Thanks to her insistence, MARTA got screwed — plain and simple.

For more than three decades, MARTA has been saddled with a state imposed restriction that no other transit agency in the country has had to bear.

The City of Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb counties voted for MARTA — agreeing to tax themselves a one penny sales tax to build and operate the transit system.

But our state, which has inexplicably not provided ongoing financial support for MARTA, required that 50 percent of that sales tax go to capital expenses and 50 percent for operations. Remember MARTA is the largest transit agency in the country to receive no regular financial support for the state.

This year’s legislative session provided an opportunity to remove that restriction once and for all. But our Republican state leaders, in a most paternalistic manner, said that restriction would be lifted for just three years — giving MARTA an opportunity to prove itself to be financially responsible.

Unfortunately, the hole that MARTA is in is so deep that waiving that restriction for three years is window dressing at best.

But that wasn’t the most egregious legislative insult against MARTA.

Thanks to Rep. Jones, MARTA will be the only transit agency in the state that will not be eligible to use any of this new transportation sales tax collected in our region for its existing operations. The transportation sales tax could only be spent for operations for expanded MARTA service.

Think about it. MARTA is struggling with having to drastically cut its existing service because of the steep decline in sales tax revenues. It needs money now to pay for its current service. By saying the money can only go to expanded service is basically excluding MARTA — the transit backbone of our entire region — from receiving any significant portion of the new sales tax.

And that’s not all. The bill also mandates a new governance structure for MARTA. Once again, the legislature is overstepping its bounds. Remember the state is not a partner of MARTA. Yet the state believes it should play at the power table even though it does not pay into the system.

The legislature also decided to reconstitute MARTA’s board from 18 members to 11. And at least one of those with voting power will be the state’s commissioner of transportation, Vance Smith. Again, the state will be able to play without pay.

And that’s not fair.

The legislature also ignored the pain-staking work that’s been underway for years to develop a regional transit vision for the region.

That work has been conducted by one group during three incarnations — Transit Planning Board, which became the Transit Implementation Board, and is now the Regional Transit Committee of the Atlanta Regional Commission.

The diverse regional group approved Concept 3 — a comprehensive transit vision for our region. The same group also has been drafting a new governance structure for a regional transit agency that would help integrate the operations of MARTA with all the other transit agencies in the region.

How sad that the legislature did not let the Atlanta region call the shots on the governance of a new regional transit agency.

One of the greatest advocates for transit in the state legislature is Doug Stoner (D- Cobb) who explained to constituents why he voted against the transportation bill. For starters, Stoner believes that waiting until 2012 to put a plan before voters is too long.

“I also feel the legislation does not do enough to assist MARTA with its budget problems,” Stoner wrote. “To deal with future growth, supporting mass transit is as important, if not more important, than building more roads.” (Amen).

Even more distressing is how MARTA was put in a no-win corner during the heated negotiations on the transportation legislation.

At a critical point in the negotiations, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, wanted MARTA to help them lobby for the bill.

Basically, they were asking transit agency to help pass a bill that would singularly punish MARTA. And they were upset when MARTA General Manager Beverly Scott did not show up at the state capitol (her board had asked her not to) in the last ditch effort to get votes for the bill.

MARTA did not help its case when not one of its leaders went on the LINK trip to Phoenix — a safe place where they could have explained their position and could have worked to build stronger regional support for MARTA.

But all that is now history.

The real question is what we should do going forward.

For starters, we have the 2011 legislative session to fix this flawed bill. Second, the Regional Transit Committee can continue working on a fair governance structure for a metro-wide transit agency. The Atlanta Regional Commission should flex its muscle to get as much local control as possible.

Third, regional leaders need to come up with a project list that is transit friendly. In city after city, Atlanta leaders have been told that voters like transit and that a sales tax stands a better shot of getting passed if it includes investments in light rail (which has the most voter appeal), commuter rail, intra-city or intra-county buses as well as regional express buses.

If the bill has a chance in passing, at least half of the new sales tax should go to transit. And if the region wants support from two of its most populous counties — Fulton and DeKalb — it must make sure that MARTA is fairly treated and that the onerous rules imposed during this session are permanently removed.

Mayor Reed said, when talking about the transportation bill, that we should not let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

That is true.

But we also must not let the sort-of good become the enemy of the best — creating the healthiest, transit-friendly region that we can.

Maria Saporta

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.



  1. Maria,

    Good points about MARTA and transit getting short-thrift in the new transportation bill, but you’ve got to realize that all of the backpatting is because even though the bill may be flawed, getting some transportion and infrastructure investment is better than getting what the Atlanta Region and North Georgia has been getting for way too many years, which is nothing at all! You’ve also got to remember that this “transportation bill” came out of a legislative body that has proven to be historically increasingly more and more transit averse, especially during the Perdue Administration. Georgia has fallen to the point where it now invests less-per-capita in infrastructure than every other state in the Union besides Alaska and when it does invests in transportation, it’s usually for a road project in rural Middle or South Georgia somewhere. I have few doubts that roads will most likely be the priority if the new tax is voted into law.

    As for the politics singling out MARTA for special treatment, sure we would have liked for MARTA to have received more financial help for operations, but you’ve got to keep in mind that the legislature originally wasn’t even going to suspend the 50-50 for three years and decided to do so basically at the last minute. You’ve also got to keep in mind that with state politics the way they are, the bill wouldn’t have been able to have gained enough support for passage from a transit-averse Republican-dominated legislature of rural and suburban conservative politicos if transit, especially MARTA, had been the centerpiece of transportation planning and financing because you know that transit, which is considered by many Conservative rural and suburban dwellers to be a highly-experimental form of transportation that is only championed by big-government socialist-types and MARTA, which serves progressive urban Atlanta is anathema to much of the state Outside The Perimeter. There are also competing anti-transit factions that just simply don’t want to fund transit for many of the prejudices I just described who are in an ideological power struggle and tug-of-war, of sorts, with pro-transit, but anti-MARTA factions who would like to fund transit, but don’t want to fund transit if they have to fund MARTA because of its real and perceived history of poor management, etc. Many of the pro-transit, anti-MARTA folks in the legislature, personified by suburban Republicans Jan Jones of Alpharetta and Jill Chambers of Dunwoody, I highly suspect, would like to see MARTA taken over and operated by the state to serve a much wider swath of the Atlanta Region and are doing what they can to edge that day closer and closer by attempting to undermine MARTA at every possible turn.

    With the 50-50 rule now suspended for three years, if MARTA was really thinking of expanding its service and its geographical reach and was really serious about helping itself financially, MARTA would raise its fares from the absurdly low rate of $2.00 to a rate that could help the agency raise the badly-needed extra funds to invest in itself like the $3.00 to $5.00 range. Extra financial help from a historically and increasingly hostile state legislature is NOT forthcoming anytime soon, if ever. If MARTA wants to raise additional operating funds and become a viable part of this region’s future (and present) transportation plans it is going to have to do so itself, at the fare box. We can argue and whine about how unfair it is that state government is unsupportive of and even hostile to MARTA, but that is just the overriding culture of the state that surrounds the great city in which we live and love. Otherwise, if MARTA doesn’t think expansion and raise its own funds in the near future, a state takeover of the agency by way of GRTA is a distinct possibility down the line (side note: it looks as if some factions at the highest level of state government also want to use SRTA to eventually takeover GDOT in almost much the same way that they want to use GRTA to eventually takeover MARTA).

    By accident of geography, topography and history, Atlanta will have no choice but to embrace transportation alternatives to the automobile because it’s regional road network was developed according to the pattern of meandering ancient Indian trails and does not have even a fraction of the continuity that the road networks of comtemporaries such as Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, Miami, Chicago or even Los Angeles might have whose road networks adhere to strict N-S, E-W grid system. It also seems to be politically unpopular amongst the voting constituency in the Atlanta Region to widen roads to the point where they can handle the amount of traffic that actually travels on them because of both vegetation and speculative real estate concerns, a political phemonema that is seen primarily in the Northeastern U.S., specifically in the Washington D.C. area, but maybe surpassed in the Atlanta area. Many heavily-traveled two-lane roads in the Atlanta Region are seemingly only widened to four lanes when they may be better served by being widened to six lanes, if they are widened at all.

    I’m not saying that all busy two-lane roads should widened to six lanes but I do question the wisdom of the improvements that include empty bike lanes that were just added to a recently-completed four-lane highway that is still gridlocked with exceptionally heavy traffic (Georgia 141/Peachtree Parkway is a prime example). Couldn’t they have just added one more lane in each direction where the empty bike lanes are and constructed the empty sidewalks of an asphalt blacktop surface so as to serve jointly as a sidewalk/jogging route/bike-lane, since the road is obviously a very heavily traveled road with a 55 mph speed-limit? Anyways, it’s not a matter of if the region will invest in expanded transit options, but when (did I mention that never also counts as an option of when?).Report

  2. Yr1215 May 10, 2010 4:49 pm

    TW+JJ, it makes me a bit ill to say this, but I agree with pretty much all of your points. Thanks for the non-pithy, rather more serious, comments.Report

  3. Scott May 10, 2010 4:53 pm

    It still bothers me that the state wants to micro manage MARTA yet contribute nothing to it. You would not believe how indignant people have been on other forums going on about how they were sick of paying for MARTA, not at all realizing that MARTA just wanted to spend its own money. Jan Jones is the face of tit for tat politics under the dome. She didn’t get any democrats behind Milton Co (and some where required to get 2/3s for a constitutional amendment), so in an act of blatant retribution…she decided to screw MARTA. When will these people realize they cant smell (due to the nose they’ve been missing for continuously cutting it off to spite their face). What is more troubling is that Jan Jones represents a district thats really going to suffer from additional traffic. Hopefully more troubling for her reelection…Report

  4. Yr1215 May 10, 2010 5:06 pm

    Scott, while your reaction is certainly understandable, as TW+JJ pointed out, some progress is much better than none.

    3 years of relief is better than none. Being able to use funds to expand MARTA is fantastic. As Reed pointed out, the bill included everything MARTA asked for in previous years.

    What some reasonable people (not counting Jan Jones) are ticked off about is MARTA’s budgetary management. Everyone is being forced to tighten their budgets (people, business, government), and MARTA should not be exempt. Also, in a right to work state, a lot of people hate unions. I happen to agree with them.

    MARTA should be happy about the opportunities they’ve been given by the state, right-size with their new budget however they see fit, and go from there. If they can return to a break-even or, heaven forbid, “profitable” situation, they will be able to then invest in future growth and expansion of service.Report

  5. “TW+JJ, it makes me a bit ill to say this, but I agree with pretty much all of your points. Thanks for the non-pithy, rather more serious, comments.”

    Comment by Yr1215 — May 10, 2010 @ 4:49 pm

    Sorry about the flashback the other day, I think that I may have been hanging out at the State Capital a little bit too much during Glenn Richardson’s regime as House Speaker.Report

  6. Scott, Yr1215:
    I suspect that a state takeover of MARTA is alot more possible than any of us might think, probably within a three-to-five year timeline. I don’t know if it is a guaranteed certainty that the state will take over MARTA and fold it into GRTA, because nothing is really a certainty in Georgia legislative politics, that is, except for shamelessly obvious annual pandering to the National Rifle Association, the Tea Party, the Religious Right and big business, but I think things may be moving in that direction because I hear repeated comments from the two North Metro legislators in question, Jan Jones and Jill Chambers, expressing that they’d like more transit options in their neck-of-the-woods, but not necessarily the kind that are provided by MARTA as it is currently constituted.Report

  7. Yr1215 May 11, 2010 9:45 am

    I suspect you are correct. I am not wholly sold that a state takeover of MARTA would be such a bad thing. But legally, I think it would be a very difficult thing for them to do simply due to actual legal “ownership” issues.Report

  8. Scott May 12, 2010 10:14 am

    Where would a state takeover leave Atlanta, Fulton, and Dekalb who have paid for MARTA the last 30yrs. A “thanks for paying for it now we’ll just take it”? That would just reward Cobb, Clayton, Gwinnett, and all the other metro counties who contributed nothing, and now sit poised to reap benefits off the backs of 30yrs of monetary participation. I think thats a big problemReport

  9. Scott May 12, 2010 10:19 am

    I would love to know what transit options Jill Chambers wants. I have seen no record of anything but obstruction. We have way too many agencies that seem to get very little in physical accomplishment done (not counting the millions of dollars on study after study)as it is. I’d like to know what she thinks…its easy to say no, its a little harder to know (funny how the ‘k’ and ‘w’ get lost)Report

  10. archie brown May 12, 2010 11:39 am

    I have always enjoyed your commentary about regional issues, and you are right on point about marta and the state. I also agree with some of your other readers. The point that I would like to make is this, it always amaze me that the workers who ride and need marta are always speaking up, but not the owners and employers that we work for. I guess it will take most of us not showing up for work because of cuts to the service, and profits dwindelling for them to finally partner with us on this issue. Maybe your next commentary can address this issue, because we need their help, because the legislature that is running Georgia is not concern with reliable and pratical transit that powers our region. I have been here since 1990 and has used Marta every since. I think that the main reason is power and the fact most of them and their friends and family have cars, and most of them come from the most rural parts of Georgia and the Metro Atlanta transit is not a concern for them. And one last note, I also think that Marta should require that their unionized employees do a better job at customer service, and not take it for granted that their union membership will protect them forever.Report

  11. Yr1215 May 12, 2010 11:42 am

    Scott, you’re point at 10:14 alludes to the same thing I’m referring to. It’s not just a political problem, it’s a legal problem.

    Who owns MARTA’s assets? I don’t think it’s the state, technically, although I could be wrong. Assuming MARTA owns MARTA’s assets, then the state would need to buy them from MARTA, and MARTA would repay the counties that funded MARTA.

    Which leads to questions such as: how much to which county? What are MARTA’s assets worth?

    The list is pretty endless. Of course, since MARTA’s assets don’t positively cash flow, if the state takes them, technically the liability for funding them would be benefit to Fulton and Dekalb if they could eliminate their special tax.

    At any rate, this issue is so complex, and I don’t know enough about the technical issues, that I don’t really see any functional solution at this point.

    The only intelligent proposal I can think of, which is probably a non-starter is this: the state gets MARTA free (since it’s a liability, not an asset), Fulton-Dekalb get to end their special 1% tax. This doesn’t work for a variety of reasons.Report

  12. Yr1215 May 12, 2010 11:50 am

    Archie, I agree with you on the last point about the unions. Their pay should probably also be reduced.

    Where I disagree is on this: employers have pushed hard to help on the transportation and MARTA issue. I might also add a cold hard fact. Most labor talent is replaceable. Not always, but generally. So if you can’t make it to work, they will re-hire someone who can. Many employers are pretty compassionate and would try to help you find alternative transportation services (carpooling, vans, etc.) or relocation. But no one employee INDIVIDUALLY is as important as he/she probably thinks they are. From the CEO to the janitor.

    There are extremely rare exceptions.Report

  13. mark May 13, 2010 9:43 am

    TW+JJ, I would agree with your original statements but for one big issue. GRTA (and I believe SRTA by virtue of being an authority rather than a state dept.) is tied directly to the governor’s office and not the legislature. (You’ll remember last year with SB 200, originally GRTA would have essentially taken over the planning function from GDOT; thereby bringing this aspect of transportation under the governor’s office. The legislature saw this as a power grab and re-wrote the legislation to reorganize GDOT with a new Planning division instead.)

    I would wonder if by rolling MARTA into GRTA you would not have the same issue. I would imagine that doing this would be more palatable than rolling GDOT into SRTA, if in fact SRTA’s relationship with the governor’s office is the same as GRTAs.Report

  14. Mark:
    Many people thought that the state might be moving in the direction of possibly taking over MARTA in some way, shape or form when GRTA was created under Roy Barnes back in about 1998-99.Report

  15. Man about Town May 15, 2010 11:44 am

    How did two little housewife politicians manage to mess up the entire MARTA system?

    Maybe if MARTA would micromanage itself it would not be so easy for politicians to “screw” the system.

    MARTA “screwed” themselves and you know it.Report

  16. shirley May 16, 2010 12:16 am

    Interesting the state didn’t “takeover” MARTA last year when legislation passed to “strengthen” the governor’s influence on transportation. 2012 will be a busy year for sales tax referenda on the ballot in Atlanta with the one cent water/sewer tax, maybe an Atlanta Public School SPLOST and now the transportation tax. If all three pass, Atlanta will have one of the highest sales tax rates in the country just as the city and state are coming out of a protracted recession. Let’s hope the unemployment rate for Atlanta falls and more Atlantans get good paying jobs, since unemployment in the city is higher than the state and national average now.Report

  17. John May 16, 2010 2:23 pm

    It is my belief that the Regional Transit Committee, part of the ARC, will put forward a clear strategy to integrate all regional transit agencies.  The statute calls for a legislative proposal that could create this new regional authority.

    I wholly support MARTA, but after having read the Transportation Investment Act of 2010 it is my opinion that MARTA will be absorbed and replaced with this larger governance entity.  This is progressive and integrative.  It would pool funding resources for all, rendering the MARTA restrictions moot.  Ultimately, the region cannot blame the legislature, MARTA, or voters.  Real or perceived mismanagment at MARTA will undermine the confidence of voters who will be asked to fund potential expansions to our disjointed regional transit system.

    By dissolving MARTA and moving toward a new, regional, world-class transit system, we make good on the promise to all peoples that we support reliable transportation for the underprivileged, commuters, and of course those who just don’t want to drive.  The legislature has F’ed up in the past, but I believe they want all regional counties and players to work together and get beyond the past 4 decades of solidly broken transit governance and mixed emotions.

    Things may be rough in the short-term, but i have faith this is actually a monumental step in the right direction.    Report

  18. John:

    I agree with all of your very good and very perceptive points, but keep-in-mind that the state hasn’t only screwed up with just transit, but also roads and transportation in general as one only needs to look no farther than the exceptionally dysfunctional Georgia Department of Transportation and the numerous state and regional transportation and governing agencies as prime examples of a state government that has seemed to almost not have a clue as how to manage transportation modes of all forms, especially for most of Sonny Perdue’s tenure as governor.Report


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