MARTA faces drastic cuts

Atlanta's troubled transit agency needs funding from Georgia's historically dismissive lawmakers

Xavier Murray, who works long hours as a security guard, relies on public transit to get him where he needs to go. But soon, he might not be able to rely on the bus for the hour-and-a-half trip to visit his son. Starting this summer, Yvonne Cobb, a grocery store clerk, might need to block out three hours for her daily, six-mile commute. And Tiffiny Nash might have to travel two miles by wheelchair – down a street with cracked sidewalks – to catch a bus to her physical therapy sessions.

Atlanta's beleaguered transit agency is in deep shit. It needs the state's help to lift it out of a $120 million shortfall – one that could result in 30 percent cutbacks to its already strained train lines and bus routes. The problem is, the state has never been too interested in MARTA's well being.

In fact, MARTA is the only major transit system in the nation that gets no funding from the state – the product of an indifferent Legislature and decades of disdain for public transit riders. As a result, MARTA's image, service and bottom line have suffered.

If the state fails to intervene this time, MARTA's board is considering slicing into bus and train service in June. The cuts would be unprecedented. Wait times for trains could increase to as long as 30 minutes. More than 1,000 transit employees could be laid off. More than half of the system's 131 bus routes – including some of its busiest – could disappear. And nearly all the bus lines that survive most likely would have to be redrawn to make up for the cuts.

Local elected officials say that, beyond simply disrupting lives, the cutbacks could cause job loss, could cut into Atlanta's $11 billion tourism industry, and could imperil the city's competitive edge over such cities as Charlotte, Orlando and Dallas. What's more, the cuts would come at a time when transit ridership has dramatically increased, gas prices are predicted to rise, and access to jobs is increasingly vital.

"You've got an awful lot of people in the Atlanta area who've adopted MARTA as their means to get around," says Jim Durrett, a MARTA board member. "And there's a very high likelihood that their only option is going to be taken away from them. It'll be devastating."

After spending most of the decade dipping into reserves to avoid major cutbacks, MARTA is now pinning its hopes on the General Assembly to soften the blow of what potentially could be the biggest cuts in MARTA history. The transit agency is hoping state lawmakers will approve a measure that they failed to pass for two consecutive years: a one-cent sales tax that would allow local governments to fund public transit, roads and other transportation projects.

If that legislation fails again, the transit agency's hoping to at least be freed from a Draconian funding restriction that's forced cutbacks at times when money's been in the bank.

Of course, the Gold Dome has a history of snubbing MARTA – and right now, it's the only place the transit agency and its riders can look to for help. Lawmakers have less than 10 days to act. Good luck.

For a state that contributes zero cash to the operation of MARTA's buses and trains, Georgia — particularly Georgia Republicans — sure enjoy telling its biggest transit agency what to do.

In the early years, the transit agency's biggest threat was rural lawmakers. Now it's predominantly suburban politicos who criticize the transit agency as a bloated, inefficient operation that should fend for itself. But statehouse Republicans weren't always to blame.

"There were several good Republicans – Mike Egan, Paul Coverdell, Kil Townsend – who came out for MARTA because they understood it," says Buckhead Coalition President Sam Massell.

Massell, who was Atlanta's mayor from 1969 to 1973, helped lobby for the one-cent sales tax referendum in the city of Atlanta and DeKalb and Fulton counties that to this day provides more than half of MARTA's funding. The problem is, the law that created the one-cent sales tax requires that the transit agency spend no more than half of the revenue on operations. (The other half must be spent on maintenance and new projects.) MARTA would sooner spend a much bigger chunk of the money on operations – a move that would help stave off cutbacks. As it stands, MARTA's operations fund is dwindling, thanks to the faltering economy. And that's left MARTA deep in the red.

Egan, who represented Fulton County in the House and Senate and was considered one of the most effective Republican politicos in the '60s and '70s, remains a MARTA supporter. He says that because of MARTA's service to the airport – and its $2.1 billion role in the state's economy – the transit agency deserves state funding.

"Back then, MARTA was doing all right on its own," he says. "It didn't need state help in the early days. It desperately needs it now."

Things changed for MARTA in 2002, when a new breed of Republicans, some of whom represented suburban constituents who connect to the service, assumed control of the House and gave MARTA a harder time than ever.

"It appears they had the same sentiment toward mass transit as they did toward public assistance," says House Minority Leader Dubose Porter of Dublin. "Which was the wrong way to view it. You ought to view transit as a major way to move people in a major metropolitan center."

MARTOC, the joint committee tasked with overseeing MARTA, had traditionally looked out for the transit agency's best interests. But with the GOP takeover, that dynamic changed, too.

Neill Herring, a longtime environmental lobbyist who once represented MARTA's transit union, says that when MARTOC was chaired by Democrats there was a "caucus in the Legislature to work for and to protect it."

"When the Republicans took over that was completely reversed," Herring says. "It became a tool to torment MARTA."

Says Porter: "MARTOC was seen as that communicator between MARTA and the General Assembly. But in the last several years, it's reversed to the General Assembly telling MARTA what to do."

State Rep. Jill Chambers, the Dunwoody Republican who was appointed MARTOC chair in 2004, has developed a reputation as a data-obsessed watchdog whose harsh questioning and deep probing of the agency has bordered on bullying. In late 2009, Chambers blasted MARTA's board of directors for hiring an outside lobbying firm to help plead its case to rural lawmakers. MARTA's goal: reach out to and educate rural lawmakers about the cash-strapped transit agency's importance to the state.

Chambers writes off warnings about possible service cuts as a political maneuver – a bureaucratic scare tactic from a top-heavy agency that, according to Chambers, still hasn't cut to the bone. She points to $65 million worth of consultant contracts secured by MARTA in 2009, as well as salary and benefit increases for MARTA executives.

"Their focus on cutting routes that are heavily populated with passengers doesn't really cut it," Chambers says. "That's not where they should be looking to reduce service levels."

A few ways to avoid the cutbacks, Chambers says, is to ditch the consultants, eliminate routes served by empty buses, and trim upper-level management salaries.

To its credit, MARTA has discontinued merit-based raises, delayed labor union negotiations, and planned employee furloughs, among other measures. Some previously planned cuts to lesser-used routes, an agency official says, are among those under discussion. According to a study by the Federal Transit Administration, MARTA ranks as one of the most cost-effective transit systems in the country.

What Chambers considers the cure to MARTA's ills – and the only way she says it could receive state funding – is for the state to take over the agency, operate it, and create a regional network. Considering the legislative session is drawing to a close, a state takeover won't be happening this year.

In the meantime, Chambers says she won't block the short-term fix MARTA needs – namely, access to more than half the sales-tax funding in order to cover more operation costs.

But Chambers is still worried that cutting into the other 50 percent – set aside for maintenance – could prove disastrous: "When – not if – a major infrastructure need or repair is necessary, is MARTA gonna have enough cash to maintain the system in a state of good repair?"

Here's the bad news: The transportation funding bill on which MARTA, the business community and gridlock-trapped motorists have pinned their hopes might fail once again.

One version already has.

After nearly 20 hours of debate and discussion this year, Gov. Sonny Perdue's proposal to levy an additional, regional one-cent sales tax for transportation projects died in committee. The bill would have given MARTA three years to use as much as 100 percent of the one-cent sales tax revenues for operations.

Lawmakers have instead resuscitated a proposal from last year that would allow one or more counties to partner and levy a penny sales tax. (Lawmakers say elements of Perdue's proposal will be included in the legislation, which Georgians would approve or deny at the ballot box.)

Unlike last year, however, no Democrats are on the committees to iron out the legislation's details. That doesn't sit well with the minority party, Porter says. The Dems have placed a priority on transit – and their votes are vital to the passage of the legislation.

MARTA's other, more basic legislative fix – the mere lifting of the 50-50 funding restriction – could also get political. Last year, for instance, Republican leadership used that request to try to leverage an unpopular GOP resolution.

In 2009, on the frantic final night of the 40-day session, House Republican leadership gave Democrats an ultimatum: Support a property-tax reform bill (one that would've sapped local governments' revenue) or we'll kill legislation that allows MARTA flexibility over its funding. The Democrats declined, saying MARTA was too important to use as a bargaining chip. Faced with eliminating all routes on Fridays, the Atlanta Regional Commission stepped up and filled the transit agency's shortfall with one-time stimulus funds.

Such political infighting puts Georgia at a disadvantage when compared to states such as North Carolina and Florida, which have invested in transit and have been awarded millions – in some cases billions – in federal funding.

The fallout for Georgia is evident in ways big and small. On the one hand, a shrinking public transit system means that the growth of the Atlanta metro region could slip behind other cities. On the other hand, cutbacks could mean that Xavier Murray gets fewer visits with his 8-year-old son. Yvonne Brown – who crosses her fingers that route 82 won't get the axe – could end up "tired from the travel home, not from the day at work." And Tiffiny Nash, unable to afford the disabled devices she needs to drive her own car, wonders how she'll go about her day.

"To me, MARTA means independence," she says. "It's how I get around the world."

Former mayor Massell echoes Nash's sentiment.

"It is sort of man's fifth freedom to let people travel," he says. "Large numbers of transit-dependent people are imprisoned. This is a dangerous and damaging effect on society and on our community's well-being. Even for the wealthiest among us, if the labor force can't reach their job, everyone's going to be hurt."