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Rail News Home Passenger Rail

August 2012

Rail News: Passenger Rail

MARTA to keep rail expansion vision alive


By Julie Sneider, Assistant Editor

Despite Atlanta-area voters’ rejection of a transportation plan that would have created a 1 percent sales tax to fund infrastructure projects, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) will continue planning for two rail expansions as well as state-of-good repair projects, MARTA officials say.

On July 31, Georgia voters went to the polls to vote in a statewide referendum to determine whether a 1 percent Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (T-SPLOST) should be created during the next 10 years to fund transportation projects. The Transportation Investment Act, which authorized the referendum, divided the state into 12 regional districts, and voters in each region decided whether the penny tax would go into effect in their region to pay for local projects. The vote passed in three regions, but failed in the rest — including the 10-county Atlanta region.

Had the measure passed in metro Atlanta, MARTA would have been one of the bigger benefactors of the sales-tax proceeds. The tax would have generated $600 million for upgrades to MARTA’s system.

On Aug. 6, at its first regular meeting following the referendum vote, MARTA board members and senior staff took questions on the agency’s post-referendum strategy. At the meeting, Chairman Frederick Daniels Jr. said the MARTA board, executive staff and agency “sincerely look forward to working with all elected officials and our transportation partners around the region and across the state to provide high-quality commuting choices that best serve the needs of our fellow Georgians now and in the future.”

Daniels also noted MARTA’s cost-cutting efforts and initiatives to improve efficiency and maximize revenue, as well as the agency’s current ongoing audit of its management and operational practices by KPMG to find ways to make MARTA more productive. Even before the audit began, MARTA cut 300 employees, or 15 percent of its full-time staff; required employees to take two weeks of unpaid furlough for three years; gave no pay raises to administrative staff; implemented no increases in the collective bargaining contract with unionized employees; and increased employee contributions to health insurance premiums, he said.

Daniels’ statement, which he read at the board meeting, also was in response to post-referendum comments from Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal in which he said the vote’s result “slams the door on further expansion of our rail network any time soon.”

“Neither I, nor the Legislature has much of an appetite for new investments until there are significant reforms in how MARTA operates,” the governor stated in a prepared response issued after the July 31 election.

But, despite the referendum’s defeat, MARTA officials will continue planning for future expansion, agency officials said in a recent interview with Progressive Railroading. Although some of MARTA’s state-of-good-repair projects would have benefited from T-SPLOST revenue, the agency’s capital program contains budgeted funds at least for the environmental review process related to expansion, they said.

That means environmental planning for two rail proposals will continue: One calls for heavy rail to operate along the Interstate-20 East Corridor between MARTA’s existing Indian Creek Station to the Mall at Stonecrest; the other calls for the Clifton Corridor’s 8.8 mile light-rail extension.

After the environmental review process is completed, the agency will pursue ways to fund the remaining project development, including possible opportunities for public-private partnerships, said Don Williams, MARTA’s senior director of transit-system planning.

“We would say we are steadily moving forward, but we need to get additional monies to complete the advanced planning process,” Williams said.

Regarding the Clifton Corridor: MARTA is getting ready to initiate the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) process, which should take the next 18 to 24 months to complete.

MARTA will seek federal New Starts funding for the I-20 and Clifton projects, Williams said.

Meanwhile, funds for most of the state-of-good repair projects that would have been funded from the T-SPLOST already are in MARTA’s capital improvement program and are “laid out according to the funding available to complete those projects,” said Davis Allen, MARTA’s assistant general manager of finance. The T-SPLOST proceeds would have “augmented” those projects, but they will continue to move forward to some degree, he said.

“We took a conservative approach to planning, and nothing in our operating or capital side assumed the referendum would pass,” said Rich Krisak, MARTA’s assistant general manager of rail operations. “Our largest funding partner really is and will continue to be the federal government.”

Whether the Atlanta-area voters’ rejection of T-SPLOST is a bigger-picture indication of public sentiment toward the use of sales taxes to pay for transportation projects remains to be seen. But, the leader of an Atlanta-area business and civic organization that campaigned in support of the referendum’s passage believes the election results are a local story and not part of a national trend.

More likely, the referendum’s outcome reflected Atlanta-area voter concerns over a still-struggling economy; a lack of local public confidence in government; and certain “missed opportunities” by the pro-transportation-tax campaign, said Jim Stokes, executive director of the Livable Communities Coalition, a group of leaders, citizens, organizations, businesses and other entities that support “smart growth” planning in metro Atlanta.

Among those missed opportunities were not responding early to the transportation plan’s opponents and not communicating in detail what Atlanta regional neighborhoods and communities would have gained from the referendum’s passage, said Stokes.

“I would say the message out of this campaign is one that is favorable to transit in that the project list — by dollars — was 52 percent transit and 48 percent roads,” Stokes said. “I do not think this bucks the national trend [in favor of funding public transit]. I just think there were a lot of other factors here in Atlanta that led to the referendum’s defeat.”


Browse articles on MARTA Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax Frederick Daniels Jr. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal Interstate-20 East Corridor Clifton Corridor Livable Communities Coalition Jim Stokes

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