(NOTE: This is the first in a special series examining MARTA. Part 2 will be posted Monday evening.)
On May 14, this newspaper ran a story that began:
“MARTA’s managers appear determined to hold the line on bus and train fares for another year, but unresolved labor problems and a desire to find new sources of revenue will be continuing worries . . . .”
Yep, that story ran on May 14 — in 1984.
What has the transit agency learned since then? Evidently not much. MARTA still awaits salvation, a train that never seems to arrive. If you read the digital board in a station, it may say, “North Springs, 13 minutes,” or “Airport, 2 minutes.” Perhaps MARTA should add, “Financial Rescue, forget it.”
As you may have heard, MARTA now faces a $120 million budget hole. Believe it or not, the agency projected as early as in 2006 that it would be short $60 million by now, even though revenues were forecast to rise for a decade. Problem was, expenses piled up even faster.
One might summarize the financial history of MARTA (and most public entities) this way:
The economy takes a turn for the worse; MARTA’s budget, which already assumed some operating losses, goes from tenuous to disastrous. Officials warn of (take your pick) drastic, draconian, devastating service cuts unless someone, anyone, finds $50 million in new annual funding. Because the economy has also hit state and local governments, no new money materializes. Service is cut and employees laid off by the hundreds.
The economy takes a turn for the better; MARTA’s losses don’t disappear but do shrink. Still, no new $50 million. Yet the agency restores service and reinstates jobs by the hundreds. Sales tax revenues rise, but expenses rise faster.
The economy takes a turn for the worse . . . .
For a quarter-century at least, MARTA has waited. It has hired lobbyists and PR agents. Managers have come and gone, as have four governors, five Atlanta mayors and various county leaders, of all political leanings. No matter; no new money.
It’s time to stop assuming that things are going to change.
It’s time to stop assuming that the money will come, and that MARTA’s leaders should keep approving boom-and-bust budgets rather than passing what’s sustainable.
It’s time to stop assuming that MARTA itself can or should expand throughout the region.
It’s time to start assuming that MARTA is what it is: One transit entity among many, one that can interlink with the others to play a relatively small but essential transportation role in metro Atlanta. One that must live with today’s 1-penny sales tax for its primary funding.
Alternatives are lacking. Dedicated state funding is a pipe dream — for political reasons, but also because, as the lean budgets lately show, no amount of state spending is truly dedicated.
The Transportation Investment Act of 2010 may generate some $7 billion over a decade if metro voters approve a new 1-cent levy. But, with apologies to the Beltline, the biggest challenges to metro mobility lie on or beyond I-285, and OTP voters are more likely to bite on projects that don’t bear a sullied brand.
In any case, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority would oversee rail or bus projects funded by the new levy. The idea that GRTA should then turn the new tracks or routes over to MARTA is loopy.
With a clearer view of its role in Atlanta, MARTA could better tackle the problems and opportunities it faces in its current size. There are plenty of each.
Next: How MARTA fell into its current hole.