If a one-cent sales tax for regional transportation projects is passed next year, local leaders want to make sure the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) gets its fair share.
But state law does not allow the transit system to use its funding wherever it is needed, leaders said. And that lack of inflexibility is a major impediment for the transit system.
“We’ve done the best that we can,” said Beverly Scott, chief executive officer for MARTA. Representatives from DeKalb and Fulton counties and the city of Atlanta met with MARTA officials on March 31 to discuss their efforts to develop various transportation projects in the Atlanta area.
Last year, Georgia’s legislature enacted the Transportation Investment Act (HB 277), which provides for regional referendums in 2012. As a result, voters in the Atlanta metropolitan area will be able to vote on a penny sales tax to fund various transportation projects, including transit, roadway, safety, bicycle and pedestrian improvements.
The sales tax is expected to generate approximately $8 billion in revenue.
March 31 was the deadline for cities and counties to submit proposed projects to be considered by the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) and a regional roundtable of city and county leaders. From those projects, a project list will be recommended for the 2012 referendum.
Among the projects being considered for DeKalb County is the construction of a MARTA light rail along I-20 from Atlanta to Stonecrest Mall at a cost of $1.35 billion. Another proposed light rail would cost $465 million and run from Decatur to the Lindberg MARTA station in Atlanta.
MARTA has a capital improvement program of $188 million, which is well under the $325 million the system used in each of the past 10 years.
“All we are doing in capital right now is if it breaks, I fix it,” Scott said. MARTA also makes improvements for safety and regulatory compliance.
Scott said MARTA’s $400 million operating budget is not enough. The transit system is falling short by $100 million for operations and another $100 million for capital improvements. MARTA has approximately $150 million in reserves, but after next year, that money will be gone.
“We’re just about at the end of everything MARTA had in reserves,” Scott said.
Last year, MARTA cut services, reduced its workforce by 15 percent, mandated a 10-day furlough for workers, and signed a zero-increase labor union contract to stabilize the transit system until the funding comes in from the possible sales tax increase, Scott said.
“We’re being very clear: the reality is that Marta is not sustainable without increased investments.”
Local leaders have criticized HB 277 because it does not permanently give MARTA the financial flexibility it needs. Currently, under state law, MARTA must use 50 percent of its funding for operations and 50 for capital improvements. That regulation was suspended by HB 277 for three years and Scott said MARTA benefitted from that waver: $61 million in MARTA funding was freed up.
“HB 277 is lacking in many respects,” DeKalb Commissioner Lee May said. “By shoring up some of those loose ends in HB 277, we’ll be more confident in having a project list that can pass a public referendum. Right now there is no confidence. Public sentiment is very questionable on whether a referendum on any list will pass.”
DeKalb Commissioner Jeff Rader said the region should support the MARTA heavy rail system because it is the “basic backbone of regional transit” that allows the Atlanta region to attract Fortune 500 companies, major sporting events and large events.
“Fulton and DeKalb are the jurisdictions that most people come to or come through when they are commuting in this region,” Rader said. “Any improvement, frankly, in our jurisdictions are almost by definition regional. Almost any investment in MARTA will be a regional investment.”
A final list on the proposed projects for the referendum is expected to be release in October.