MARTA is distributing to state lawmakers a memo that raises the possibility that it could cut rail service — “either certain days or times, or entire lines altogether” — if the Legislature doesn’t pass a measure that lets the transit agency direct more of the cash raised by a sales tax toward operations.
The Senate has already passed S.B. 120, which removes all restrictions on the spending of the sales tax. The House has passed a version that would permit MARTA to spend 60 percent. Current law demands MARTA to spend 50 percent for operation, and 50 percent for capital improvements.
The memo makes clear that failure by the House and Senate to reach an agreement would have serious consequences for Atlanta’s business community, and the ‘burbs.
In circumstances like these, extreme scenarios can be interpreted as threats, and threats can backfire. MARTA General Manager Beverly Scott called to say that she was “deadly serious.”
“This is a precious trust that I’m not prepared to play Russian roulette with,” Scott said. More details about what routes might be cut, and what rail service could be curtailed, could come as early as a March 30 meeting of the board, she said.
“Some $5 million in annual savings are being considered which consists of furloughs, salary reductions, and health care cost containment starting in FY 2010….
“The MARTA board of directors will also most likely recommend fare increases and additional parking fees for FY 2010….However, these aids are not large enough to offset the significant shortfall MARTA faces.”
But this is the largest consequence that MARTA is painting (the bold portion is as it appears in the memo):
“Without new revenue sources from the state or region…MARTA will be forced to dramatically reduce service levels, eliminating bus routes, cutting rail service (either certain days or times, or entire lines altogether), and potentially seriously impacting the overall economic well-being of this region and state.
“More than half (54%) of MARTA’s approximately 516,000 daily rides involve commuting to and from work, with another 10 percent using the system for school purposes and 10 percent for medical needs. With Atlanta already in economic crisis, we cannot afford to jeopardize essential access to employment centers, educational institutions or medical providers.”
Repeal of the sales tax restrictions would give MARTA an extra $65 million in flexibility, and help it close current shortfall. “This is not a permanent funding solution — but rather a one-time ‘self-help’ assistance measure that still requires a permanent, state-based funding solution,” the memo closes.
In an interesting opinion piece today, former Atlanta mayor Sam Massell gives a history of restrictions on the MARTA sales tax:
As mayor of Atlanta in 1971, I and many others wanted a system of free ridership on MARTA. Our issue was mobility — and we wanted it for as many people as desired it.
But there were powerful forces in the Legislature — most notably then-Lt. Gov. Lester Maddox — who wanted anything but a free transit system. Lt. Gov. Maddox thought it ought to cost at least 25 cents to ride MARTA. If ridership was free, he believed, the system would be overrun with “winos,” as the homeless were called.
Maddox had a way to ensure there would be no free ride on MARTA: Simply deny the system a huge chunk of its sales tax revenues for operations. In a 1971 amendment to the Georgia Sales Tax Law authorizing a tax levy for transit in metro Atlanta, Maddox insisted that half the sales tax revenue be set aside for capital expenses, forcing MARTA to make up the operations shortfall at the fare box.
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