A good year for transit

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

Last year was a good one for MARTA, as CEO Keith T. Parker outlines in today’s column. There’s a chance that 2015 could be even better, if the legislature follows suggestions from its transportation infrastructure committee and dedicates an annual revenue stream for transit around the state, presumably including MARTA. In our second column, a local think tank executive questions the enthusiasm for transit in a recent Atlanta Regional Commission survey, adding that Clayton County should have explored other options before locking into a 40-year penny sales tax for MARTA.

MARTA moving into future

By Keith T. Parker

If the events of 2014 offer a prelude of what’s possible for transportation in our fast-growing region, then 2015 could be a watershed year for MARTA, transit in metro Atlanta and around the state.

While MARTA continues to look ahead, a quick review of several major developments that unfolded last year should be a source of optimism for those who appreciate the value of providing cost-effective and reliable transportation choices for residents and visitors.

In November, Clayton County voters passed a historic referendum to join MARTA by an overwhelming 3-to-1 margin, marking the first time the system has been expanded since its inception more than four decades ago. The first MARTA buses will roll into Clayton in March.

Last week, MARTA proudly joined with partners at the city of Atlanta and Central Atlanta Progress to launch the Atlanta Streetcar, a 2.7-mile project that connects the storied Auburn Avenue corridor with the downtown business district, hotels, sports venues, shopping and tourist attractions.

Another major 2014 highlight that coincided with the streetcar launch was the release of a report by the Joint Legislative Study Committee on Critical Transportation Infrastructure Funding. The committee’s recommendations could lead to much-needed transportation improvements when lawmakers convene next week for the 2015 legislative session.

The renewed focus on transportation as a state and regional priority couldn’t be timelier as we continue to recover from the Great Recession. Creating job opportunities and shoring up the roads, bridges and transit systems that support economic growth and sustain our quality of life are issues that should transcend politics. Consider this: The American Public Transportation Association, an industry trade organization, reports that every dollar spent on public transit produces $4 in economic activity and has a positive impact on property values.

It’s also obvious Georgia can’t afford to wait for Congress to pass a long-term transportation-funding bill. If and when that happens, it likely won’t cure our problems. We must be prepared to take matters into our own hands. To remain competitive in a globalized economy and to attract a high-quality, tech-savvy workforce, there is consensus in metro Atlanta for making homegrown investments in transit that the public wants and can generate significant dividends.

The Atlanta Regional Commission’s “Metro Atlanta Speaks Survey” found 92 percent of respondents rated transit as “very” or “somewhat” important to address the region’s mounting transportation challenges. (It’s noteworthy that support for transit in the survey was strong in counties that had access to MARTA or other transit providers, as well as in those that do not.)

What does this all mean for MARTA in 2015 and beyond? For one, going forward, we strongly urge the Legislature to include transit in any transportation-related funding proposals. The public — especially the car-shunning millennial generation — is clamoring for the travel alternatives transit effectively provides.

In the meantime, MARTA remains committed to making good on our pledge to remove every legitimate reason for not investing in us. To change old perceptions about the agency, we are changing the reality. We are striving to be as efficient as possible and to keep demonstrating we are prudent financial stewards. As our bus and rail on-time performance has increased, we know we must do even better on every trip, every day. In short, we are striving for routine excellence in all we do.

We are making substantial progress in getting MARTA back on track. We have stabilized our expenses, balanced our last three fiscal year budgets and increased revenues. These changes led to an upgrade of our credit rating that will save taxpayers millions of dollars in the coming years.

After years of decline, our ridership has shown promising signs of rebounding. And our Transit-Oriented Development program has been a hit with the commercial real estate community and with major companies relocating near our stations because their workers increasingly prefer taking transit to driving.

We are advancing several cutting-edge initiatives to make our transit system more attractive, convenient and even safer than it already is. We’re planning new systems to let customers pay fares by cellphone and to connect their mobile devices wirelessly on trains and buses, and we’re testing high-tech “smart” restrooms at rail stations. The MARTA Police Department is rolling out artificial intelligence software that can detect abnormal activity, enabling our officers to respond more quickly to an emergency.

To find out more about what MARTA has in store, visit www.itsmarta.com at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday to view a live stream of the annual “State of MARTA” breakfast. Join the online conversation on the future of regional transportation using #SOM15, and share how you’d like to see MARTA move from good to great.

Keith T. Parker is CEO and general manager of MARTA.

Transit findings’ not-so-silver linings

By Benita M. Dodd

An Onion report that 98 percent of Americans surveyed favor public transportation – for other commuters – is one that, since publication in 2000, remains probably the satirical newsletter’s most reality-based article.

Recently, 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 the same question about roads and automobiles, but did confirm that transportation, in general, is the top issue for respondents (42 percent).

Clayton County’s mass transit needs were steered toward MARTA by a well-funded (and successful) PR campaign. On Nov. 4, Clayton became the third county to join MARTA since the transit authority was established in 1971. 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 a transit option for a county where mass transit 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. This year, when Clayton voters are asked to extend the county’s existing special purpose local option sales tax (SPLOST), that won’t be pretty.

Benita M. Dodd is vice president at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

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