Unless a miracle occurs by June 30, MARTA will be forced to make severe, even crippling cuts in services that tens of thousands of Georgians rely on heavily in their daily lives.
And that miracle better be a big one.
According to MARTA Chairman Michael Tyler, the agency expects operating revenue from sales taxes, fares and other sources at $316 million for fiscal 2011. (The system’s sales-tax revenue has taken a particularly hard hit in the recession.)
However, at current service levels MARTA’s operating expenses are projected to be $436 million, which creates a looming shortfall of $120 million.
The service cuts needed to reduce the budget by a quarter will have far-reaching ramifications to the economic health of metro Atlanta and Georgia.
MARTA, after all, is infrastructure. It is supposed to be permanent, and many people have built their lives and businesses around the expectation that the system will be there.
For example, many of its customers are low-income workers with no other means of getting to their workplace. Sharp reductions in service may push some of them into unemployment, and the businesses that employ them may face the loss of good workers.
Other riders are totally dependent on MARTA to access medical care, grocery stores and other necessities of daily life. The tourism and convention business, including hotels, are also highly dependent on MARTA, as is the airport.
“I think everyone understands the gravity of the situation,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said last week. “I think everyone understands that, without any change in MARTA’s funding, it goes broke…. That can’t stand from a competitive standpoint. It would devastate the Georgia World Congress Center. So there are multiple competitive reasons that MARTA needs to function well.”
All in all, MARTA will provide more than 140 million trips this year; for almost 50 percent of its riders, the transit system represents their sole means of transportation.
(And despite what you hear from some at the state Capitol, MARTA is generally a well-run agency that’s respected nationally. That criticism is largely offered to excuse the state’s continued neglect of MARTA.)
There’s also no sign that the looming service reductions would be temporary. Gov. Sonny Perdue has proposed legislation allowing metro Atlanta to tax itself for transportation, but even if that proposal becomes law, the money can only begin to flow by 2013 at the earliest.
“That makes for three very difficult years for MARTA,” says Chick Krautler, director of the Atlanta Regional Commission.
According to Tyler, the system’s best hope for a miracle lies with the state Legislature. But while state leaders talk a lot about trying to preserve jobs and improve our competitiveness in these tough economic times, there is little sign they will be willing to help.
Perdue, for example, has proposed selling bonds to raise $300 million for transportation projects this year. Unfortunately, that money is earmarked only for projects that move freight, not people. For example, it includes $10 million in taxpayer subsidies for state-owned freight lines, most of which are in south Georgia.
Yet not a penny for MARTA.
In fact, in a meeting last week Krautler acknowledged that no one on the governor’s staff had even contacted the metro Atlanta planning agency for input into how that $300 million might best be spent.
“The challenges are so big that we need to work together right now,” Reed warned legislators last week. “We can deal with the stuff between us later. But right now Georgia’s dominance as the capital of the South is threatened.”
And we do nothing.