MARTA and the gas tax

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

The Georgia General Assembly recently passed a bill that allows MARTA a bit more flexibility in planning its future. Today, the transit agency’s leader writes about the various ways that components of that bill can help MARTA build on its mission, perhaps even to Clayton County. In our second column, a group of transportation and business leaders talk about the importance of finding an alternative to dwindling motor-fuel tax revenues, in order to keep state and national highways and bridges safe for drivers.

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Some tools to build with

By Keith T. Parker

When Georgia lawmakers approved most of MARTA’s 2014 legislative agenda last week, it seemed to signal a hopeful vote of confidence in the progress we’re making to ensure metro Atlanta’s transit system continues to improve.

H.B. 264, better known as “the MARTA bill,” included key initiatives the agency wants to implement but which first required legislative action. Overall, the bill’s passage complements the transformational efforts now underway to streamline MARTA’s business practices, hold folks accountable for misbehaving and to continue on a path of fiscal sustainability. Most important to me, the legislature did not mandate any new oversight or actions that would limit my ability to run the agency.

Here are a few highlights of how the bill impacts MARTA:

The 50/50 mandate – MARTA gets relief for three years from the law requiring an even-split of its revenues for operating and capital expenditures through June 30, 2017. While any reprieve is welcome, temporarily lifting this restriction has little practical impact on MARTA’s short-term financial outlook. In principle, the mandate itself is outdated and unnecessary; a future legislature should see fit to eliminate it permanently.

Public-Private Partnerships – For the first time, MARTA will be authorized to receive unsolicited proposals to contract with the private sector in the creation and development of efficient and innovative ideas without undergoing the traditional bidding process. This provision empowers MARTA to potentially engage in “managed competition” ventures with its own employees who want to bid against private companies for contracts to provide goods and services.

Ride with Respect fines – MARTA’s new code of conduct policy features suspension for various violations. Although there are details still to be resolved, the law will allow MARTA to impose and collect fines from violators.

Two-step union negotiations – In an effort to expedite the successful conclusion of labor contract talks, the bill eliminated an existing provision that required petitioning the governor for binding interest arbitration if an impasse occurs. Under such circumstances, the process moves from a neutral fact finder to a judge who makes the final ruling, likely saving time and money.

Board Governance – Under changes sought by legislative leaders, MARTA’s board will add one new seat for a total of 13 (including two non-voting members). Three DeKalb board members will be appointed by the county commission; the fourth by a caucus of mayors. One representative for South Fulton will be appointed by commissioners; the remaining two by a caucus of North Fulton mayors. In the city of Atlanta, the mayor will select appointees affirmed by the city council. The governor gains a new board appointee who must reside in either Fulton or DeKalb County. Board members will serve staggered terms. These changes will go into effect January 2017.

Although separate from MARTA’s legislative wish list, transit supporters cheered the passage of HB 265. This measure allows Clayton County to levy a one-cent sales tax to possibly join MARTA. Since the 2010 demise of Clayton’s bus service, C-Tran, public calls for new transit service are mounting. I personally receive constant comments about the need for Clayton to join MARTA.

Granted, the final version of HB 264 lacked some of the legislative items MARTA had originally hoped to advance. As our legislation bounced between both chambers, last-minute changes were inevitable. We applaud elected officials and others who support MARTA’s mission – even if they didn’t support this bill.

As CEO, I want to thank board members and key staff who guided us through the rough-and-tumble of this year’s legislation session. On behalf of our customers and employees, I’m also grateful for state lawmakers who last week entrusted us with the legislative tools needed to keep MARTA moving ahead.

Keith T. Parker is general manager and CEO of MARTA.

Decreasing tax revenues force new plans

By Ernest L. Greer and Michael Sullivan

In Georgia and Washington, D.C., serious conversations are taking place about transportation — in particular, how the critical infrastructure projects that manage traffic, ensure safety and protect our economy will be funded in the future.

While Georgia’s population and congestion continue to grow, transportation funding from current sources steadily declines. At the same time, the solvency of the Federal Highway Trust Fund is at risk, as is the reauthorization of a long-term federal highway bill — both of which have a direct and significant impact on our state funding strategy.

Recently, the Georgia General Assembly passed a bill sponsored by House Transportation Chairman Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla, and Senate Transportation Chairman Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, that creates a much-needed joint legislative study committee on critical transportation infrastructure funding.

In Washington, Congress is considering, among other things, the future of the motor fuel tax as well as transportation reauthorization proposals from both President Barack Obama and House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp. Both plans rely heavily on corporate tax reform as a foundation. We applaud Georgia House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle for the Legislature’s leadership on this issue, and hope that spirit of cooperation will extend to Washington.

In both cases, we hope leaders will develop a path forward that is innovative, multi-modal and focused not only on the next five years, but the next 25 years of transportation investment. This will not be easy, and it will require bipartisan cooperation. But the impact of whatever outcome is reached is critical not only for Georgia, but for our nation.

Neither discussion can be had in a silo. In the United States, each level of government has an interrelated role in infrastructure development, operation and maintenance. Local governments own and maintain the roads that feed into state-owned highways. Those highways feed into the national interstate system and connect to our ports and airports. State and federal governments work together on research and standards so that roads and bridges are properly inspected, and they collaborate on plans that ensure transit expansion across the country meets the needs of our communities.

Over the past ten years, 62 percent of Georgia’s transportation spending has come from the federal highway trust fund, or the motor fuel tax, which continues to decline in real value. Other states face the same issue. Also, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx noted recently that more than 1,000 of America’s bridges are over 60 years old and in need of repair. This is a serious national problem with major consequences for public safety and, ultimately, our place in the world economy.

Improving road safety, funding repairs, expanding infrastructure and providing viable transportation options are all critical to any state’s economic growth.

As this conversation continues, we encourage our state and federal elected officials to take a thoughtful approach to our transportation challenges — an approach that addresses our most critical needs while planning for the future. It is our hope that, rather than rhetoric, the coming months will include a constructive dialogue about how we can create a transportation system for generations to come.

Ernest L. Greer is chairman of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. Michael Sullivan is chairman of the Georgia Transportation Alliance.

4 comments Add your comment

Gerald

March 26th, 2014
5:02 pm

Though not quite as partisan, I agree with Markooo. Obama and the Congress badly bungled the stimulus. Voters cannot identify anything that had lasting benefit on it. That is one of the reasons why the GOP controls the House and is on their way to controlling the Senate.

Markooo

March 26th, 2014
10:11 am

Art, it’s not that the original stimulus wasn’t big enough. It’s that it was just pork in disguise. Please don’t blame anyone other than the President, Pelosi and Reed as they were completly in charge when the stimulus was designed and passed. Of course don’t forget that buffoon Biden and his “summer recovery tour”.

Art

March 25th, 2014
7:47 pm

Well Gerald it would support the contention that there was not enough stimulus the first time and this would be for projects that would have a bigger impact. These big impact projects are what the original stimulus didn’t address that should have been and still need to be. They will provide another short term boost to an economy that stills needs it and this time it will be for new infrastructure that also will stimulate economic growth. Of course the Obama administration doesn’t pass the stimulus or any spending bill Congress does. And as long as there are people in Congress more concerned with making the administration look bad than improving the countries economy nothing will happen.

Gerald

March 24th, 2014
6:10 pm

“Also, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx noted recently that more than 1,000 of America’s bridges are over 60 years old and in need of repair.”

Wow. That is amazing. Perhaps the Obama administration should pass an $800 billion stimulus to get those fixed. It would create a short term boost to the economy to keep the unemployment rate below 9% and the new infrastructure would facilitate new economic growth. It is a great idea, so let’s get it done! Oh wait …