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Put MARTA in state's hands

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Put MARTA in state's hands

By BILL LOUGHREY

MARTA, hurt by adverse trends at the national, state and local levels, also suffers from mismanagement and faces a financial meltdown.

The transit agency, vital to solving the Atlanta region's stifling transportation problems, must be radically overhauled.

The national economic slowdown has resulted in ridership declines at large transit systems. At the same time, there is no new federal money for major transit construction or increased operating assistance. The federal government faces major budget deficits long term.

MARTA finances and budgets are based on the assumption that ridership will increase in future years. Yet, ridership is declining.

Even small declines have serious effects on MARTA finances, which is a capital and labor-intensive business.

Georgia has had a mass transit policy that is ineffective at best, if not a complete and total failure. Georgia does not provide direct financial operating assistance to MARTA. During a period of relative economic prosperity, the last governor, Roy Barnes, refused to extend a helping hand to MARTA when it faced a budget crunch.

Georgia has a duplicative and wasteful alphabet soup of agencies for transportation policy -- GRTA (the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority), ARC (Atlanta Regional Commission), MARTA and DOT (the state Department of Transportation).

There are plans for commuter rail, light rail, circulator systems and buses that at best lack coordination and may be viewed as a hodgepodge.

A substantial reason for this failure is the lack of confidence by state government in MARTA's operations and management. At the same time, the DOT has been extremely effective at building roads, paradoxically making the inequities of the current policies even worse.

The current transportation policy has helped to make sprawl the dominant paradigm of Atlanta development. By spending little or nothing on mass transit, the state has exacerbated the problem. The performance of MARTA and county oversight of the role of MARTA have both been poor. MARTA management is mediocre and its board is weak.

The current, ineffective board recently extended the contract of General Manager Nathaniel Ford by five years. Let's hope the election of new board leaders will help improve the situation.

However, MARTA is unlikely to pull out of its financial tailspin. It has been running a deficit for seven years in a row and the current deficit is more than $30 million and increasing.

Each year the agency finds new ways to eat into its capital budget. Many of its major decisions are questionable. For example, it committed $130 million to real estate development in downtown Atlanta instead of investing in its primary mission and most important priority -- extending mass transit to more residents.

Major changes in MARTA and state and regional policies are required to avoid a major financial catastrophe. Proposals for a regional sales tax or operating assistance from the state are dead on arrival as long as there is a widespread lack of confidence in MARTA and its board.

For this reason, particularly given the weak board and poor appointments to the board, jurisdiction over MARTA should be transferred to GRTA.

This state agency should also have the authority to retain or fire management. This transfer of authority would eliminate at least one of the overlapping, duplicative agencies in the current structure.

Officeholders and residents of Fulton and DeKalb counties may object to losing their authority over MARTA.

However, the alternative is to continue to fund this agency without help from other counties and the state. GRTA should work with other counties and localities to help piggyback their transit systems to MARTA.

Current plans for commuter rail, light rail, circulator systems and buses should be dovetailed with the current MARTA system or jettisoned. Improved coordination of all state, regional and local mass transit efforts is critical for a successful state transportation policy.

GRTA should seek to outsource and privatize those functions not directly related to mass transit. MARTA is a mass transit agency, not a security, janitorial or food service agency.

The state should provide protection from legal liability for MARTA. Litigation and insurance costs now run into the millions of dollars, funding that should be available to provide for mass transit.

State, regional and local governments need to take action to restore public confidence in MARTA and Atlanta's regional mass transit system. Bailing out MARTA is no solution. Comprehensive transportation reform is the answer.

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I'm almost in complete agreement with him. The beltline LRT that will probably be built would most likely fall under MARTA's juristiction. I believe the study on its feasibility is being supervised by MARTA, though I'm not sure where commuter rail falls.

I keep stressing, the two biggest transportation keystones for ensuring Atlanta's continued economic prosperity are the beltline and commuter rail! We cannot expand the freeways further on the northside, and there are limits on the southside. The costs don't justify the anticipated relief, as cronies like Wendell Cox like to suggest.

I'm still predicting state takeover of MARTA this year, and it will probably occur with the implementation of commuter rail and LRT which will soon follow. The sewer issue showed the state's willingness to cooperate with the city for the economic benefits statewide. I think transit in the Atlanta region will be taken in the same light now. If not, forget about Atlanta's continued growth.

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As long as we have an oilman for president, and an endless series of major expenditures for war along withtax cuts, there will be little money for anything. Good public transport is the norm in most developed countries. We should have it too. Going to the city without a car to drive and park is a real joy.

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As long as we have an oilman for president, and an endless series of major expenditures for war along withtax cuts, there will be little money for anything. Good public transport is the norm in most developed countries. We should have it too. Going to the city without a car to drive and park is a real joy.

Bush seems to really enjoy spending money we don't have. He wants to increase the space funding too. But when it comes to projects that might actually benefit the people (like increasing public transportation funding), there isn't any money. We can plan a trip to Mars and set up a colony on the moon, yet we can't plan a trip to the city without a car because of our lack of public transportation :rolleyes:.

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