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"Back then, MARTA was doing all right on its own," he says. "It didn't need state help in the early days. It desperately needs it now."
Things changed for MARTA in 2002, when a new breed of Republicans, some of whom represented suburban constituents who connect to the service, assumed control of the House and gave MARTA a harder time than ever.
"It appears they had the same sentiment toward mass transit as they did toward public assistance," says House Minority Leader Dubose Porter of Dublin. "Which was the wrong way to view it. You ought to view transit as a major way to move people in a major metropolitan center."
MARTOC, the joint committee tasked with overseeing MARTA, had traditionally looked out for the transit agency's best interests. But with the GOP takeover, that dynamic changed, too.
Neill Herring, a longtime environmental lobbyist who once represented MARTA's transit union, says that when MARTOC was chaired by Democrats there was a "caucus in the Legislature to work for and to protect it."
"When the Republicans took over that was completely reversed," Herring says. "It became a tool to torment MARTA."
Says Porter: "[MARTOC] was seen as that communicator between MARTA and the General Assembly. But in the last several years, it's reversed to the General Assembly telling MARTA what to do."
State Rep. Jill Chambers, the Dunwoody Republican who was appointed MARTOC chair in 2004, has developed a reputation as a data-obsessed watchdog whose harsh questioning and deep probing of the agency has bordered on bullying. In late 2009, Chambers blasted MARTA's board of directors for hiring an outside lobbying firm to help plead its case to rural lawmakers. MARTA's goal: reach out to and educate rural lawmakers about the cash-strapped transit agency's importance to the state.
Chambers writes off warnings about possible service cuts as a political maneuver – a bureaucratic scare tactic from a top-heavy agency that, according to Chambers, still hasn't cut to the bone. She points to $65 million worth of consultant contracts secured by MARTA in 2009, as well as salary and benefit increases for MARTA executives.
"Their focus on cutting routes that are heavily populated with passengers doesn't really cut it," Chambers says. "That's not where they should be looking to reduce service levels."
A few ways to avoid the cutbacks, Chambers says, is to ditch the consultants, eliminate routes served by empty buses, and trim upper-level management salaries.
To its credit, MARTA has discontinued merit-based raises, delayed labor union negotiations, and planned employee furloughs, among other measures. Some previously planned cuts to lesser-used routes, an agency official says, are among those under discussion. According to a study by the Federal Transit Administration, MARTA ranks as one of the most cost-effective transit systems in the country.
What Chambers considers the cure to MARTA's ills – and the only way she says it could receive state funding – is for the state to take over the agency, operate it, and create a regional network. Considering the legislative session is drawing to a close, a state takeover won't be happening this year.
In the meantime, Chambers says she won't block the short-term fix MARTA needs – namely, access to more than half the sales-tax funding in order to cover more operation costs.
But Chambers is still worried that cutting into the other 50 percent – set aside for maintenance – could prove disastrous: "When – not if – a major infrastructure need or repair is necessary, is MARTA gonna have enough cash to maintain the system in a state of good repair?"
One version already has.
After nearly 20 hours of debate and discussion this year, Gov. Sonny Perdue's proposal to levy an additional, regional one-cent sales tax for transportation projects died in committee. The bill would have given MARTA three years to use as much as 100 percent of the one-cent sales tax revenues for operations.
Lawmakers have instead resuscitated a proposal from last year that would allow one or more counties to partner and levy a penny sales tax. (Lawmakers say elements of Perdue's proposal will be included in the legislation, which Georgians would approve or deny at the ballot box.)
Unlike last year, however, no Democrats are on the committees to iron out the legislation's details. That doesn't sit well with the minority party, Porter says. The Dems have placed a priority on transit – and their votes are vital to the passage of the legislation.
MARTA's other, more basic legislative fix – the mere lifting of the 50-50 funding restriction – could also get political. Last year, for instance, Republican leadership used that request to try to leverage an unpopular GOP resolution.
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