Transit Needs a Ticket to Transparency

At its second meeting August 2 at MARTA headquarters, the House Commission on Transit Governance and Funding heard from MARTA CEO Keith Parker.

At its second meeting August 2 at MARTA headquarters, the House Commission on Transit Governance and Funding heard from MARTA CEO Keith Parker.

By Benita M. Dodd

In March 2017, the Georgia House of Representatives voted to establish a Georgia House Commission on Transit Governance and Funding that sunsets by December 2019. The resolution cites the need to study developing a “unified regional governance structure;” “creating efficiency and coordination among providers;” “regional, integrated and comprehensive mass transportation,” and, “an analysis of potential methods of funding.”

The commission is charged with undertaking “a study of the conditions, needs, issues and problems mentioned above or related thereto and recommend any action or legislation.”

The commission met in June and August 2. Two meetings in, it seems the only problem is funding. The state’s alphabet soup of transportation agencies shared their progress and plans for expansion. But the commission has yet to ask tough questions.

What should really worry Georgians – especially those in metro Atlanta – is what CEO Keith Parker of the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) said at the second meeting: “Right now the competitive environment for transportation is changing so dramatically that in just the next few years we don’t know what is going to be there.”

That’s because before making the point, Parker outlined a MARTA plan that – despite his acknowledgment of imminent, dramatic change – makes massively expensive, inefficient long-term commitments in the wrong direction.

Worse, despite no mandate in the resolution to do so, it seems there’s an unspoken commission tip of the hat to MARTA in a metro regional leadership role. Consider the remarks to Parker by commission Chairman Kevin Tanner: “Like you’ve hit on, the reputation is important, because we know that MARTA needs to expand all through the metro area; in order to get citizens comfortable with that the reputation has to be there.”

To be sure, MARTA is the state’s biggest transit agency. Just a few years ago, amid the economic downturn, massive challenges beset the 5,000-strong agency, which has 38 rail stations, about 600 buses and service vehicles for the disabled. Parker noted an auditing firm found the agency in “unsustainable freefall” when he came on board in 2012. He has achieved near hero status for turning MARTA around.

He discussed “aspirational” rail expansion plans that are currently unjustifiable and unfunded, declaring, “We are assuming there will be a funding source at some point, so we have very active studies under way.”

  • Just two years after Clayton County bus service began, he told the commission that rail service through to Henry Country – his preference – could “potentially be the first” high-capacity expansion and MARTA is working with Norfolk Southern on that. Nobody asked about bus ridership numbers, funding or the potential countywide impact on Clayton riders.
  • Just one year after legislators shut down rail expansion up Georgia 400 amid vociferous objections, he told the commission MARTA is studying a rail line up Georgia 400. Rail takes decades to complete; the Georgia Department of Transportation already has plans for managed lanes for that corridor, an expedited, cheaper and more efficient option that will become part of a metro-wide network of lanes.
  • The Emory/Clifton Corridor – which has the most potential for rail service but could be better served earlier by less costly, innovative, forward-thinking, smart-city approaches, has 2.2 Atlanta city miles that could gobble up some of MARTA’s new half-cent sales tax.

Nobody asked the opportunity cost to riders of MARTA’s takeover of the Atlanta Streetcar money pit, or of expanding it.

MARTA fares covers just 35 percent of “operations.” Nobody asked for a breakdown; in fact, more than $4 out of every $5 of “operations” goes to MARTA salaries and benefits. 

Transit agencies make lofty ridership projections they can never meet. Nobody asked whether MARTA has ever met its projections at any of its 38 rail stations.

Some of MARTA’s actions are excellent: safety improvements, efficiency improvements, equipment updates, wi-fi, technology updates and last mile ride-share. Some are nice but questionable in a limited-funds environment: transit-oriented development projects, Relay bike partnerships and “more than a station” projects like soccer fields at stations, “fresh MARTA markets” and art displays.  

Across the state and across the region, mobility needs must be met. Transit riders need to get from Point A to Point B as quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. If MARTA’s CEO is willing to admit that the environment is changing dramatically, it’s unconscionable to work to trap riders in expensive, decades-long projects obsolete even before they are completed. One can only hope the governance and funding commission takes its good governance mandate seriously.

Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent, nonprofit, state-focused think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (August 4, 2017). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.