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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Soapbox: 'We cannot allow for this system to die...'

MARTA officials recently asked lawmakers to loosen state-mandated spending restrictions on its main funding source. If not, officials warned, drastic service cuts were inevitable for the metro region's largest transit agency. In the op-ed below, Mayor Shirley Franklin, Fulton County Chairman John Eaves and DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis — elected officials whose jurisdictions pay the one-cent sales tax — ask lawmakers to ease the restriction.

For more than 30 years, visitors and residents of Atlanta and Fulton and DeKalb counties have paid an extra penny in sales taxes so our region might have mass transit. Needless to say, the benefits of mass transit have extended far beyond the borders of Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb. Can you imagine the Centennial Olympic Games choosing Atlanta without a means of moving millions of people? Or that major conventions, the lifeblood of our local economy, would locate here if their attendees were unable to move around? MARTA has been a major economic generator not just for Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb, but for our region and the entire state.

Which is why we are asking, in a time of severe economic crisis, for the Georgia General Assembly to help MARTA. This year, we are not asking that the General Assembly commit one extra dime to help MARTA -- though other state governments across the nation promote the economic benefits of public transit and routinely appropriate millions for both operations and expansion. We are only asking the Legislature to give MARTA the ability to use the funds it already has at its disposal during this time of great economic need.

Currently, state law mandates that MARTA reserve half of its sales tax revenue for capital expenditures only. MARTA needs that restriction lifted so that it can use sales-tax revenues to meet current needs. The 50-50 split between capital expenses and operations may have been appropriate in MARTA’s early years, when the system needed heavy capital investment to e xpand and grow. But now the system needs more funding on the operations side so that it can maintain an aging system.

It also needs the ability to cope with an economic recession that is threatening the existence of transit systems across the nation. MARTA is heavily reliant on sales taxes, which comprise more than half of its revenues. During a recession, sales-tax revenues fall because consumers are spending less.

Because of this shortfall, MARTA is anticipating a $67 million budget shortfall this year and a $107 million shortfall in fiscal 2010. MARTA plans to do all that it can to overcome those budget gaps, including implementing internal cost containment measures, identifying new revenue generation programs, drastically cutting service, and increasing fares. Ironically, this would happen at a time when more people are using MARTA than ever, and at a time when we need to encourage more transit use. A multi-year financial plan MARTA is preparing to present to its board of directors, includes some $70 million in internal productivity and cost containment measures including cessation of all merit increases and employee raises until fiscal year 2012.

Giving MARTA control over the use of its revenues will not solve the system’s financial crisis. MARTA will remain saddled with an outmoded revenue base that fails to meet its needs. To sustain MARTA long-term, we will need for the region to come together to fund a truly regional transit system, and for the state to finally step up and make transit investment a priority.

Giving MARTA control over its sales tax revenues is an important and essential first step. We cannot allow for this system to die or be decimated by service cuts because of a lack of vision and action on the part of state and local leaders. MARTA has contributed too much to the economic growth of our region, and hence our state, to allow it to be consumed by Draconian cuts and fare increases.

Again, state leaders are not being asked to appropriate an additional dime to MARTA this year. We are asking the Legislature to give MARTA the relief it needs to use its own funds to avoid massive service reductions. After all it has contributed to our region, that’s the least we can do to help the hundreds of thousands of people throughout the Atlanta region who depend on MARTA every day.

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