Atlanta Finance

MARTA at the End of Its Rope

Like New York’s MTA, Atlanta’s MARTA will have to cut service significantly if state legislature doesn’t get its act together

MARTA runs Atlanta’s transit operations, including the United States’ sixth largest metro system by ridership, and its patronage increased by almost 10% last year. Unfortunately, however, it’s facing a budget crisis – a $65 million operating deficit this year – due to the steady drop in sales tax revenue that has been affecting transit systems around the country.

Unlike those other agencies, though, MARTA does have the money; it’s just that it’s locked away due to the manner in which the 1¢ sales tax dollars, which fund more than half of the system’s costs, must be distributed. Under current state law, half of the money must go to capital expenses – in other words, the construction of new lines or the purchase of new rail or bus vehicles – while the other half is reserved for operations such as labor. MARTA’s general manager Beverly Scott is asking state lawmakers to change the law so that the system can use all of the funds as it wishes – including possibly devoting all of the money to operations. The Senate has already passed the bill, but the Georgia State House is skeptical.

Ms. Scott argues that without the change, the agency would be forced to cut service, including possibly all Sunday and maybe even Saturday service. But members of the House argue that MARTA had been given too much fiscal discretion in the past, and that the agency had made bad decisions. The AIG-leaseback deals, which cost transit agencies millions of dollars, come to mind. On the other hand, the federal government thought those deals made a lot of sense, so it’s hard to blame MARTA for getting into them.

But while I’m sympathetic of MARTA’s plight, and while it’s nice to know that there’s a whole bunch of cash waiting for the agency to use, I wonder if it does make good sense to devote half of the sales tax revenue to capital expenses. While operations must continue, Atlanta has a number of transit expansion projects in which it should continue investing; it will also obviously need to buy new vehicles in the future. Those funds are necessary… for capital expenses.

Fundamentally, allowing MARTA to simply transfer those funds into the operating account amounts to an agency attempting to live beyond its means. Like other cities, Atlanta must develop a more stable financing system that doesn’t rely on such fluctuating revenues as the sales tax. Otherwise, we’ll be discussing whether it makes more sense to pay for a driver or to maintain his bus.


Georgia Rail Planners Abandon Beltline Takeover

Conflict resolved over whether to use abandoned right-of-way for high-speed rail or local transit

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that Georgia’s department of transportation has agreed to route future intercity rail service along the existing rail corridor running west of the city’s north-south Downtown Connector, rather than along the alignment of the proposed Beltline they proposed last month. This move saves the park and trails project and will allow its planning to continue.

In late January, I reported that the state of Georgia, working with Amtrak, was eying the northeast quadrant of the Beltline for its own use, claiming that the corridor would be important for rail services to Atlanta’s suburbs and to other cities (including Southeast High-Speed Rail). Mayor Shirley Franklin was infuriated by the power grab, which came late in the game since the Beltline has been under consideration for many years now, and since the city’s planners bought the corridor last year for $66 million. Rail planners suggested that the only feasible route for intercity rail was along the Beltline, and argued that they had no choice but to take over the alignment.

But as Matt over as Track Twenty-Nine demonstrated in a threepart post, Amtrak had plenty of alternatives that would work just fine without disrupting the path of the Beltline. It appears that Georgia’s planners now agree. Now Atlanta can get back to business.

Atlanta Light Rail

Atlanta Beltline LRT Progress in Question

» Atlanta Beltline’s northeast section put into jeopardy by Amtrak and Georgia DOTAtlanta Beltline Map

Atlanta’s Beltline project is one of the most exciting urban development programs in the country. The concept, originally proposed by a graduate student at Georgia State University Georgia Institute of Technology, is a 22-mile circle of light rail lines, parks, and affordable housing surrounding the inner city along the route of a mostly retired former freight railroad. It has excited the imaginations of the city’s citizens and garnered the support of Mayor Shirley Franklin. But news today from Amtrak and the Georgia Department of Transportation threatens to derail the program.

The project would be valuable for the transit-lacking capital of the New South, which has been growing at quite a clip recently (it grew from 394,000 people in 1990 to 519,000 in 2007), but whose citizens only have two major mass transit lines to choose from: MARTA‘s North-South and East-West Metro lines. MARTA does its job well, and attracts high ridership, but doesn’t allow for inner city connectivity, important for what’s slowly becoming one of the nation’s denser cities. On the other hand, the Beltline, along with the proposed Peachtree Streetcar, would improve transit for the inhabitants of the city’s Downtown, Midtown, and Near East and West Sides.

But the program has faced significant obstacles in the past, notably involving how it is going to get the $2.8 billion it needs to sponsor construction. A tax allocation district was proposed in 2005 which would have frozen property taxes in areas surrounding the line and allowed any standard increases in taxation (which would typically go into the city’s general funds) to go to paying for the Beltline project. But the Georgia Supreme Court declared such a funding strategy unconstitutional, forcing Georgia’s voters to pass a referendum basically allowing Atlanta to push through with the deal.Atlanta Beltline Northeast Map

Now Creative Loafing Atlanta reports that Amtrak and the Georgia DOT are asking the federal government to prevent the Beltline project from taking control of the northeast section of the line because they argue that the track is necessary for the implementation of the Southeast High-Speed Rail project, Atlanta’s proposed commuter rail system, and the downtown Atlanta intermodal transportation center. Amtrak says no other route would be feasible for the implementation of those three important projects, and argues that the use of the corridor by the Beltline would make such projects impossible. But why did it take so long for Amtrak and the DOT to make their opinions known? The Beltline proposal has been around for years, and only now do we hear about a potential problem?

It would be difficult to imagine the Beltline without its northeast section, which runs through some of the city’s more prosperous neighborhoods and which likely would have seen some of the most transit-oriented development of the whole program. The section also would provide a direct connection to the city’s famed Piedmont Park, a fantastic resource that currently is cut off from rapid transit. So this fight is likely to continue on for a while, because it’s clear that neither the Beltline Partnership nor Amtrak want to give up on the rights to the corridor.

Though this is Atlanta’s problem, it raises questions about how cities around the country will handle multiple transit operators wanting to use the same right-of-way as the push for transit and rail service increases. Should intercity rail providers always get priority over local transit operators, or vice-verse? Is there any way the two could share the same right-of-way? In this case, would such a shared corridor undermine the pedestrian-friendly vision of the Beltline, or could the inclusion of intercity trains be implemented skillfully without detracting from the overall program?

For now, it’s unclear how this problem will be addressed. But a compromise, with both transit and intercity rail components included and a strong effort to somehow conserve the affiliated park and affordable housing developments, seems to make the most sense.

Images above: Atlanta Beltline Route Map and Northeast Quadrant, from