An Offer MARTA Can Refuse – or Not

My father always says, “It’s not a bargain if you can’t afford it.” I believe that is the advice he might pass along to MARTA supporters.

MARTA has long desired more flexibility in its ability to determine how it will spend its funds. Currently, 50% of MARTA funds must be spent on capital improvements and 50% on operations. This is a fairly tight financial straitjacket, though it is a way to prevent subsidization of riders at the expense of abandoning necessary upkeep of the system.

There is a possibility that the ties on spending might be loosened in the draft legislation suggested by the Transit Governance Task Force. There are; however, strings as Maria Saporta writes in The Saporta Report:

To free MARTA from the state-imposed restriction that 50 percent of its revenues be spent on capital and 50 percent be spent on operations, MARTA basically would have to turn over most of its authorities to the newly-created Transit Governance Council. For the record, no other transit agency in the nation is saddled with such an unworkable rule.
MARTA represents a $6 billion investment in our region. Why should MARTA turn over its Constitutional powers to a state-controlled entity and give up its designation as the transit authority that can receive federal funding in the region.
According to folks close to MARTA, relaxing the 50/50 rule would give MARTA flexibility over how it spends its sales tax revenue (and it is expected that currently would be worth about $20 million a year for the transit agency.
It is inconceivable that MARTA could or should give up most of its powers and its $6 billion investment in return for getting flexibility in how it can spend the MARTA sales tax collected in the City of Atlanta, and Fulton and DeKalb counties.

And then there is the issue of the make-up of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA) which would be the body with the ultimate control of MARTA. The 15 members would all be appointed: 9 by the governor, 3 by the lieutenant governor and 3 by the state house speaker. It’s not as though petty, personal politics ever happens in Georgia, so what could possibly go wrong?

From the state’s perspective, things are different. One of the complaints about the state is that it has not contributed as much money to MARTA as is needed. It is a fact that state governments are reluctant to give up control of funds, but let’s take this a step farther.

If the state increases its control of the funds, then it has greatly increased its responsibility for MARTA. It can no longer stand at a distance and point fingers. It will be forced to have a hands-on, problem-solving approach and let’s face it, the state has many more resources at its disposal that it could employ to improve MARTA – if the price is right.

In this case, the price for the state of Georgia taking so much control of MARTA is inescapable political responsibility.

If one wants the state to “man up” and do the right thing by MARTA, then allowing the state to be responsible might be the right way to go. The next logical step would be for the state to increase its funding of MARTA to acceptable levels for a state that still lays claim to the title Empire State of the South.

Is this a bargain that MARTA can’t afford? Perhaps, after all, it is not. My father, actually a man of few words, might offer another bit of sage advice to MARTA supporters, “If you want a man’s help, then make your interests his interests.” Yeah, that bit of wisdom would certainly fit.

There is much more at The Saporta Report, so check it out to get additional information. This is not the only issue with the draft legislation that is discussed. You’re big boys and girls so you can wander over there and find your way back again. For the weary, here’s the link.


  1. Max Power says:

    Here’s the thing about MARTA’s complaints about the 50/50 rule. I haven’t seen them make any real capital expenditures since the expansion out to Sandy Springs. If they really have all of this money put aside for capital improvements where’s the line to Roswell and Johns Creek? Where’s a line on the 75 corridor?

    • Dave Bearse says:

      MARTA is approaching the point where capital maintenance will need all of the 50% (especially as fed make fewer grants, and require larger local matches). If a new line was built, MARTA would struggle to fund its operation after the new wore off. For what it’s worth, I think a north line extension to Roswell should be MARTA’s highest rail priority.

      • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

        I agree that it is not a very good idea to attempt to crimp on the percentage that will be available for maintenance when all signs indicate that federal help funding will be decreasing dramatically over the next few years to due obvious fiscal “issues” in Washington.

        I will, however, as I have before, maintain that MARTA’s fares are still too low for what the agency is being asked to do and is expected to do with only a one-penny sales tax revenue stream from Fulton and DeKalb Counties, even after the recent increases to $2.50 one-way.

    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

      A MARTA line on the I-75 corridor? Are you joking? Just witness the recent hell-on-earth that was raised when people in Cobb thought that the local and regional powers-that-be were trying to build a light rail line that would connect directly to MARTA in Midtown. Many people in Cobb think that having a direct rail connection to MARTA would be the end-of-the-world as they know it.

      On the other hand, people in Roswell and North Fulton actually want an extension of the North line from the North Springs station because the commute up 400 has grown to be so miserably long at times, especially if there is an accident, or it rains, or someone unnecessarily taps the brakes one too many times, etc.

      • Max Power says:

        Full disclosure I may be the only person in Cobb who thinks MARTA is needed here but I just don’t understand the disconnect. Traffic on 75 is just as miserable as 400 but north Fulton asks for the train while Cobb rejects it. The only reason I can think of is that north fultoners have had years of experience getting off the highway and getting on the train at north springs while cobbites have never had that option.

        • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

          Actually, when you think about it, Cobb doesn’t just need some type of light rail or heavy rail connection but it also needs commuter rail on the CSX and GNRR lines, commuter bus service on I-75 and road improvements as the last major transportation “initiative” with a major impact that I can remember there is when I-75 was widened through the county about a quarter-of-a century ago, which was a big deal at the time when the Atlanta Region had less about half of the population that it has today (fewer than three million people then compared just under six million people today).

          Though, what I understand, the objection of many in Cobb to the Midtown-to-Cumberland light rail proposal was not rail itself, but not having a rail or transit line that would help relieve traffic on the most congested sections of freeway, which is on the Top End of I-285 which backs up traffic onto I-75 outside of the Perimeter up to at least the I-575 junction.

          • Max Power says:

            I’m 100% in agreement on the need for a commuter rail line but I think that’s even less likely than getting MARTA, which is as my puerto rican ex-girlfriend would say stooopid. Cobb needs an alternative to getting on 75.

            We have an existing rail corridor that mirrors the expressway and runs right through smyrna, marietta, kennesaw and acworth. Just give me a diesel locomotive a couple of passenger cars and some temporary platforms and we could have a pilot commuter rail line going for just a few million dollars.

            • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

              The plans for commuter rail in the I-75/I-575 Northwest Corridor with stops in the historic downtowns of the cities that you mentioned are already on the books of the Georgia Department of Transportation and the state owns the right-of-way of the CSX/old Western & Atlantic tracks, it’s just that, as we all too aware, the state is highly dysfunctional when it comes to road management, not to mention passenger rail proposals.

            • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

              Commuter rail on the CSX and GNRR (Georgia Northeastern Railroad) lines is not as unlikely as you think as one of the main reasons that Governor Deal cancelled the I-75/575 P3 (Public-Private Partnership) HOT Lane project (or at least the plans to finance it with private funding) was because he wanted the state to be able to implement both road and rail transit on parallel corridors without penalty to a potential private partner, which would have been the case had the P3 been permitted to proceed.

              In fact, the only reason why Deal is so eager to proceed with the I-75 HOT lanes, even without private funding, is because the state will be able to expand mass transit, in the form of commuter bus/bus rapid transit, much sooner (3-4 years max) than would be the case with either the light rail or the commuter rail proposals which are roughly still many years away (15-25 year window) at this particular point (though look for that time frame to slowly, but gradually decrease in coming years).

      • Baker says:

        Being familiar with the mayoral race in Alpharetta, I can tell you not everybody wants that extension up there. Tea Partiers aren’t exactly known for their support of transit and Alpharetta is brimming with them. Anybody want to ask Jan Jones about getting MARTA up to Windward Pkwy? If a lot of the power brokers up there had their druthers, they’d leave Fulton Co. and abandon MARTA funding along with it.

        • Scott65 says:

          They might not want it, but they are still paying for it (at least if they are in Fulton Co.). Why Cobb doesn’t want it makes no sense financially. They’d be getting for free what the rest of us have been paying for for 30 years

  2. Dave Bearse says:

    Trust the GaGOP to properly fund MARTA? The “man up” GaGOP doesn’t even have the cojonoes to provide state gas-tax funding for needed highway capacity, but they’ll do the job for MARTA? You’re kidding right?

    “Trust us [state government] by signing over the money, and we’ll do the right thing next year” isn’t Fulton and DeKalb taxpayer’s idea of MARTA reform.

    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

      “Trust the GaGOP to properly fund MARTA? The “man up” GaGOP doesn’t even have the cojonoes to provide state gas-tax funding for needed highway capacity, but they’ll do the job for MARTA? You’re kidding right?”

      Unfortunately, oh-s0-true.

  3. Charlie says:

    Congrats on making a $6 Billion investment. Now, let’s let these nice folks from the suburbs tell you how you should be running it while you continue to pay for it.

    • Isn’t it also kind of ironic that Republicans in this state essentially project a “we can’t lose” mentality but don’t have the balls to do things like this or just pass a damn sales tax increase to pay for transportation without passing the buck to voters.

      I guess it would be ironic until you consider that “we can’t lose” applies to the general election, not the primary. Luckily for Georgia’s residents, a party that worries only about the primary because they think they can’t lose the general will eventually lose the general because of the primary. But it just isn’t happening quick enough – both for Democrats and sane Republicans who’d like to get stuff done without worrying what the craziest 10% of the electorate thinks.

    • fishtail says:

      Right on Charlie ! This proposal would be like letting your neighbor tell you how to cut your grass and whether you could add on to your house while you are paying the utilities and mortgage payments. How can the Republicans in the state think that DeKalb and Fulton taxpayers would allow this new board to decide how to spend its 1% sales tax?

      Also, the new Board has 35 members. Folks who don’t have transit and don’t want transit. How would you ever get a quorum to conduct business. It would be like creating a Cattlemen’s Association and putting people on the Board that ain’t got no cows

  4. saltycracker says:

    The $6 billion invested has been a whole lot of money, too many empty buses & a jobs program as seen from most of North Fulton and less in Cobb & Gwinnett. There is nothing on the horizon to change that. Consider where the destinations/jobs are for most and it isn’t downtown Atlanta.
    And why is Cherokee even in the loop to throw away 1% ?

    If it is a good idea, something has been seriously wrong in the execution.

  5. saltycracker says:

    There is Xpress a GRTA and 12 metro counties bus system to get downtown on the cheap weekdays (but more than marta). It’s been around since 2004, express lanes for it would be cheaper than rail, so what’s the story ?

    “Fares pay for only part of the cost to operate the service. Metro counties and the State of Georgia share the additional operational costs, and the state and the federal government share the cost of the coaches and facilities. ”

    • Harry says:

      My main gripe is the buses that run near empty on the surface streets of Gwinnett all day long, and still vastly underutilized after years of experimentation.

      • saltycracker says:

        There are a lot of empty MARTA buses running around North Fulton everyday too and the idea is to throw more money at rail to get downtown, but not anytime in our life.
        Why aren’t the folks stuck on the interstate freaking for more express buses or express buses to the airport ?
        Because neither rail nor the buses go or will ever convienently go to where they need to come and go from ?
        Something is systemically wrong.

  6. Scott65 says:

    The premise that the state would “own responsibility” is the silliest thing I’ve seen written here. The people that represent the “MARTA” region are in vast minority to the rest of the state that doesn’t care in the least about MARTA, and are not in fact, under any obligation to protect the interests of MARTA riders…and wont. Also, a state takeover will cut off a ton of federal funding we desperately need. Lets not forget the original project list was 22 billion that was whittled down to 6 billion. We paid the money in taxes and we need it to fund these projects. Those under the dome give short sighted new meaning

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