MARTA Faces Cuts despite Passage of Historic Transportation Bill

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(APN) ATLANTA — MARTA is facing service cuts and fare increases as a result of continuing declines in sales tax revenues from Fulton and Dekalb Counties despite passage of the historic transportation bill, HB 277, by the Georgia legislature in April 2010.

The transportation bill lifts for the next three years the 50/50 restriction on MARTA’s sales tax revenue, which previously set aside half of its revenues for capital expenditures only. MARTA can use more of its funds for operations.

“So far, MARTA has flexed $12 million from capital to operating reserves,” Ted Basta, MARTA’s Chief of Business Support Services, told Atlanta Progressive News.

But MARTA will still be using 69.3 million dollars of its reserve fund to balance the 2011 operations budget. The reserve fund is scheduled to be depleted by 2013.

It could have been worse, MARTA noted. “MARTA’s operating budget shortfall for FY 2011 has been reduced from $120 million to $69.3 million as a result of implementing significant cost containment measures and an improved sales tax forecast by the Georgia State University Economic Forecasting Center,” Basta said.

“MARTA’s proposed operating revenues for FY 2011 are $335 million. The proposed FY 2011 operating expenses are $389.6 million. The deficit is $69.3 million,” Basta said.

The bill also creates 12 Special Transportation Districts throughout the State of Georgia which each will have the opportunity to levy a multi-county one cent sales tax. However, even if approved, the tax won’t start making its impact until 2012 which may be two years too late for MARTA’s dependent users.

The bill specifies that any increase in funding from the new sales tax be used on “new” projects only. Therefore, even if approved, the additional sales tax for the Metro Atlanta district could not even be used for operational costs of MARTA’s current system.

Planned service changes are set to take place September 25, 2010, and fare increases on October 1, 2010.

Employee lay-offs and ongoing salary freezes are part of the changes as well.

MARTA service changes include: that bus service hours will be reduced 11 percent, service miles will be reduced by 32.6 percent, the number of bus routes will go from 131 to 90, Braves and Lakewood Shuttles will be eliminated, rail service hours will be reduced by 15%, peak frequency on all lines will be 15 minutes, all lines will have shorter trains after 7pm, Red Line (North Springs) trains will end at Lindbergh, Green Line (Bankhead) trains will end at Vine City.

Fare increases are currently planned for weekly passes, monthly passes, and mobility passes. Weekly passes will be increased from 15 dollars to 19 dollars between now and 2013, with increases phased in each year. Monthly passes will increase from 60 to 76 dollars by 2013.

Reduced fare will increase from 90 cents to one dollar by 2013. Mobility passes will increase from 108 dollars to 152 dollars by 2013 as well. The number of children, under 46 inches tall, who ride free will be reduced from four to two.

“We are looking for new sources of funding for transit in Georgia so we don’t have to keep cutting transit service,” Laurel Paget-Seekins of Act Now GA, an organization of concerned citizens, told Atlanta Progressive News.

“We are working on some federal bills to get MARTA more flexibility to use transit funds. The regional level is the new regional sales tax and we are making sure transit gets a share of that,” she said.

In order to be competitive for federal funds for new transit investments, the Atlanta region must demonstrate it can maintain its existing core service.

Rhonda Briggins, MARTA’s Senior Director for External Affairs, explained for APN the steps involved in making the one cent sales tax a reality in Metro Atlanta.

The bill was already signed by the Governor. Next, Todd Long the Director of Planning for Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) has to work with the 12 transportation districts of Georgia.

If they fail to come up with projects the region loses matching funds. If they fail to pass the referendum the regions lose more money from the state.

The whole state will vote on the same day regarding the transportation sales tax, although the outcomes of the 12 referendums will only apply to each respective district.

The money from the sales tax will go to the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority to be distributed for local projects and will likely go to other transportation projects as well as MARTA.

As previously reported by APN, if the Special Transportation District for Metro Atlanta approves the sales tax increase by one penny in 2012, Fulton and Dekalb Counties will in effect be raising its existing MARTA contribution from one penny to two pennies. In other words, Dekalb and Fulton will not be exempt from paying the potential new penny even though both counties already pay a penny per dollar in sales taxes into MARTA.

Some legislators praised HB 277, while others had mixed emotions.

“This bill allows MARTA to use newly unrestricted funds to keep the system running at full capacity. Atlanta residents will no longer have to worry about their services being cut,” State Sen. Vincent Fort said in a press release. However, Fort apparently did not realize that MARTA would still face cuts despite the bill’s passage.

“Once mass transportation and transportation are fixed, Atlanta will continue to grow and be a leading city for economic development,” Fort said.

State Sen. Tommie Williams (R-Lyons) supported the bill. “This is a practical step toward economic growth which makes Georgia more attractive to potential businesses. Investing in our infrastructure and freight corridors will help us move Georgia products, as well as goods and services, through our state,” he said.

However, State Sen. Doug Stoner opposed the bill. “The Senate gave final approval April 21 to HB 277, which is better than nothing, but not much. The Republican majority finalized the legislation in a strictly partisan manner, including no Democrats on the conference committee,” he said. He added it was not enough to help MARTA which needs immediate aid in 2010.

HB 277 also reduced the size of the MARTA Board from 17 to 11 Members, removing state appointees as well members from Clayton and Gwinnett Counties, which currently do not pay into MARTA.

The new MARTA Board will consist of three residents from Atlanta, four from Dekalb County, three from Fulton County, one GDOT Commissioner, and the GRTA Executive Director.

HB 277 also authorized Clayton County to hold a referendum over whether to join MARTA. As previously reported by APN, Clayton County’s transit service, C-TRAN, closed down in recent months.

(END/2010)

About the author:

Alice Gordon is a Staff Writer for The Atlanta Progressive News and is reachable at alice@atlantaprogressivenews.com.

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