• Commentary

Transit findings’ not-so-silver linings



Critics who point to color behind a reluctance to join MARTA are right. But it’s not about race. It’s about green.

This op-ed by Benita Dodd, vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, was published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on January 6, 2015.

By Benita Dodd

An Onion report that 98 percent of Americans surveyed favor public transportation – for other commuters – is one that, since its publication in 2000, remains probably the satirical newsletter’s most reality-based article. Just this past November, an Atlanta Regional Commission survey found 70 percent of people in metro Atlanta – and 79 percent in Clayton County – consider public transportation “very important” to the region.

Why is this relevant? The Census Bureau reports that just 3 percent of metro Atlanta residents use public transportation. The ARC omitted asking respondents whether they feel the same about roads and automobiles, but did confirm that transportation, in general, is the top issue for respondents (42 percent).

On Nov. 4, Clayton County became the third county to join MARTA since the transit authority was established in 1971. Clayton’s mass transit needs were steered toward MARTA by a well-funded (and successful) PR campaign.The ballot question: “Clayton County has executed a contract with Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, dated as of July 5, 2014. Shall this contract be approved?”  Nearly 74 percent of voters in the heavily Democratic county agreed. (Turnout was 49.29 percent).

What is clear is that voters were presented with launching public transit in March in a county where it has been lacking since federal funds for C-Tran ran out in 2010. What is not clear is how many voters knew the contract involves a 40-year commitment to a penny sales tax on Clayton residents and, eventually, a rail line – maybe.

Unfortunately, a 40-year penny sales tax is regressive on residents and far from the best deal for Clayton, where the median income is $27,232 and just 6 percent of workers earn $75,000 or more. For reference, that’s considerably lower than the state average: Statewide, 14 percent of workers earn $75,000 or plus, and median earnings are at $31,418.

Under new leadership, MARTA has seen an encouraging turnaround in operations and finances. That begs the question: Why is no one but Clayton racing to join MARTA? Critics who point to color behind a reluctance to join MARTA are right. But it’s not about race. It’s about green.

The cost of MARTA’s unionized, in-house operations is extraordinarily high. More than 85 percent of total operating expenses comprise salaries, wages and benefits. Cobb and Gwinnett counties’ outsourced transit operates at far lower costs. MARTA farebox revenues cover 27.7 percent of bus operating expenses. In Gwinnett, farebox revenue covers 37 percent of operating costs; in Cobb, it’s 42.5 percent.

With Clayton’s higher percentage of low-income residents, transit can provide needed access to jobs. Burdening citizens with higher taxes than necessary, however, could have been avoided. The county should have examined other options before locking in MARTA and a 40-year, penny sales tax.

Outsourcing is a tried and tested money-saver; a fraction of an existing penny tax could have been another option. For the next 40 years, MARTA may be sitting pretty. But this year, when voters are asked to extend Claytons existing special purpose local option sales tax (SPLOST), that won’t be pretty.

Link to article: http://atlantaforward.blog.ajc.com/2015/01/05/martas-good-year/

 

 

This op-ed by Benita Dodd was published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on January 6, 2015.

By Benita Dodd

An Onion report that 98 percent of Americans surveyed favor public transportation – for other commuters – is one that, since its publication in 2000, remains probably the satirical newsletter’s most reality-based article. Just this past November, an Atlanta Regional Commission survey found 70 percent of people in metro Atlanta – and 79 percent in Clayton County – consider public transportation “very important” to the region.

Why is this relevant? The Census Bureau reports that just 3 percent of metro Atlanta residents use public transportation. The ARC omitted asking respondents whether they feel the same about roads and automobiles, but did confirm that transportation, in general, is the top issue for respondents (42 percent).

On Nov. 4, Clayton County became the third county to join MARTA since the transit authority was established in 1971. Clayton’s mass transit needs were steered toward MARTA by a well-funded (and successful) PR campaign.The ballot question: “Clayton County has executed a contract with Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, dated as of July 5, 2014. Shall this contract be approved?”  Nearly 74 percent of voters in the heavily Democratic county agreed. (Turnout was 49.29 percent).

What is clear is that voters were presented with launching public transit in March in a county where it has been lacking since federal funds for C-Tran ran out in 2010. What is not clear is how many voters knew the contract involves a 40-year commitment to a penny sales tax on Clayton residents and, eventually, a rail line – maybe.

Unfortunately, a 40-year penny sales tax is regressive on residents and far from the best deal for Clayton, where the median income is $27,232 and just 6 percent of workers earn $75,000 or more. For reference, that’s considerably lower than the state average: Statewide, 14 percent of workers earn $75,000 or plus, and median earnings are at $31,418.

Under new leadership, MARTA has seen an encouraging turnaround in operations and finances. That begs the question: Why is no one but Clayton racing to join MARTA? Critics who point to color behind a reluctance to join MARTA are right. But it’s not about race. It’s about green.

The cost of MARTA’s unionized, in-house operations is extraordinarily high. More than 85 percent of total operating expenses comprise salaries, wages and benefits. Cobb and Gwinnett counties’ outsourced transit operates at far lower costs. MARTA farebox revenues cover 27.7 percent of bus operating expenses. In Gwinnett, farebox revenue covers 37 percent of operating costs; in Cobb, it’s 42.5 percent.

With Clayton’s higher percentage of low-income residents, transit can provide needed access to jobs. Burdening citizens with higher taxes than necessary, however, could have been avoided. The county should have examined other options before locking in MARTA and a 40-year, penny sales tax.

Outsourcing is a tried and tested money-saver; a fraction of an existing penny tax could have been another option. For the next 40 years, MARTA may be sitting pretty. But this year, when voters are asked to extend Claytons existing special purpose local option sales tax (SPLOST), that won’t be pretty.

Link to article: http://atlantaforward.blog.ajc.com/2015/01/05/martas-good-year/


Benita Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.