Under state law, MARTA has been forced to operate under restrictions and handicaps faced by no other major transit agency in the country.
– MARTA is the only major transit agency in the country that gets no state financial assistance. The state does help finance express bus service between downtown and the suburbs, but it provides no financial support to MARTA, the transit agency serving its capital city and chief economic engine.
– Despite the lack of state investment or involvement in MARTA, a special legislative committee has long been empowered to provide “oversight” over the transit agency. The MARTA Oversight Committee, or MARTOC, is the only such oversight committee of a non-state agency in the Legislature.
– MARTA operates under an odd state requirement that it spend at least 50 percent of its budget on capital projects, a rule that cripples its flexibility and ability to govern its own affairs. While the restriction is temporarily suspended, legislators refuse to abolish it altogether not because it serves a purpose, but because of the control it gives them over MARTA officials.
– If metro Atlanta voters pass a 1-penny transportation sales tax in July, MARTA would be barred by law from using any of the proceeds for its operating budget. That’s right: the metro region’s major transit system would be forbidden to get help for funding its operations from a metro transportation funding source. No other transit agency in the region or state is treated that way under the law.
The absence of state funding can be explained — in part — by the fact that rural and suburban legislators don’t want MARTA competing against their own local projects for money. The attitude is short-sighted and archaic, but it at least has some rational basis. And given the state’s own budget problems, it’s unlikely to change soon.
However, the other restrictions cannot be justified even in those terms. If you want an explanation for them, you have to turn to issues that have nothing to do with transit or transportation or issues of good governance.
It comes down to this:
MARTA has long served as the unfortunate battleground on which unrelated conflicts — urban vs. suburban and rural, Democratic vs. Republican, black vs. white, rich vs. poor, traditional vs. modern — have been fought out. The current fight in the Legislature over House Bill 1052 is a case in point.
The bill bars MARTA from giving pay raises to its employees, which logically ought to be a decision made by MARTA’s board. State legislators have also stripped out language that would allow MARTA to contract with suburban counties to provide rail service. That authority is critical to creating a regional transit system, but state legislators want to dictate such arrangements themselves.
Politically, the most controversial part of the bill would strip Fulton County of the power to appoint two members of the MARTA board and instead give that authority to north Fulton mayors. That provision has little to do with MARTA; it’s a continuation of the bitter fight to separate north Fulton into a separate county, with MARTA this time as the unwitting battleground for it.
At some point, this has to end. If metro Atlanta is to succeed in modernizing its transportation system, transit has to become a symbol of and a producer of regional unity, rather than a proxy for divisiveness and conflict created elsewhere.
– Jay Bookman