It is, at some level, a test of basic respect.
It’s also a test that the leadership of Georgia is failing, at least so far. Their refusal to date to lend a helping hand to MARTA in its moment of great need — a gesture that would not cost state taxpayers a single penny — comes across as callous and even oddly vindictive.
Tens of thousands of our fellow Georgians rely on MARTA for daily transportation. The transit system is as critical to their lives as streets and roads are to those Georgians who live in suburbs, small towns or rural areas.
MARTA customers use the system to go to work; they use it to get to school so they can educate themselves. They use it to check on the well-being of their elderly parents and grandparents; they use it to get to church on Sunday, to go to the doctor’s office and to bring home groceries.
And unlike every other major rail system in the country, MARTA provides that service with no financial support from state government. For decades, the people of Fulton and DeKalb counties have levied a one-penny sales tax on themselves to pay for the entire state and local share of MARTA’s construction and operating costs.
But like any governmental agency dependent on sales-tax revenue, MARTA has taken a dramatic financial hit. The agency’s operating budget faces a deficit of more than $100 million in the next fiscal year, even after scheduled rate hikes. If service has to be cut by roughly a third, as now estimated, MARTA’s basic mission would be threatened.
That story isn’t likely to win much sympathy these days, not with every state and local agency facing similar troubles. But while MARTA officials would love an injection of state aid, they have also asked the state Legislature and Gov. Sonny Perdue for something much easier to provide.
State law requires MARTA to spend at least 50 percent of its tax revenue on capital costs, such as equipment and new construction. No other major transit agency faces such a restriction. If that legal requirement could be dropped, even temporarily, MARTA would have the flexibility to shift money into its operating budget and at least soften the service cutbacks that loom ahead. It wouldn’t be a lot, but it would be something.
However, with just a few legislative days left on the 2010 calendar, it appears that even that minor gesture of respect and decency toward MARTA riders might be too much to ask.
Last week, the House Transportation Committee did raise hope by amending a Senate bill to give MARTA the flexibility it needs. However, that hope was brief. The very next day, Senate Bill 520 was pulled back into committee until it could be stripped of the MARTA provision.
Legislative leaders are still trying to hammer out a much-needed overhaul of the state’s transportation financing system, including provisions giving regions such as metro Atlanta the right to levy new taxes on itself for transportation. Conceivably, language addressing MARTA’s 50/50 restriction could become part of that last-minute deal-making.
At some point, a longer-term solution to MARTA’s fragile financing structure will also have to be addressed, but that’s a more complex issue best addressed another day.
For the moment, legislation giving MARTA more flexibility in how it spends tax money generated in Fulton and DeKalb counties and spent in the service of Fulton and DeKalb counties would be miracle enough.