In a packed meeting at its downtown headquarters, the Atlanta Regional Commission threw cash-strapped MARTA a life preserver today, approving a reallocation of $25 million in federal stimulus dollars to help the transit agency avoid drastic service reductions.
Officials stressed the one-time funding shuffle wasn't a bailout. Under the terms of the agreement, MARTA will shift money from its unreserved capital fund to pay for MARTA-related road projects that will benefit the region.
Today's one-time move by the ARC proved necessary after the Georgia General Assembly failed to pass legislation earlier this year that would allow MARTA more control over its funding. MARTA officials said the transit agency risked cutting a full day of service should new funding not be secured.
The deal wasn't met with enthusiasm from everyone.
Fulton County Commission Lynne Riley of North Fulton warned ARC board members to proceed with caution on the reallocation of stimulus dollars. She said the use of the stimulus dollars for MARTA's stated purpose "preventative maintenance," or basically the tightening of screws and upkeep of train cars and buses violated the terms outlined by the Obama administration. Riley suggested delaying the funding allocation.
Sandy Springs Mayor Eva Galambos also expressed concerns and made a substitute motion that the $25 million funding allocation be delayed. She said MARTA's own four-year financial projections resemble a "stream of red ink" and thought it unwise to make a $25 million investment in such an operation. She voiced the need for a regional transportation agency, saying it was "high time" other counties joined into metro Atlanta's balkanized people-moving system.
Such a change in transportation governance would require action by the General Assembly, DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis noted. "We have to act now."
"We need a regional transportation system," ARC Chairman Sam Olens said, responding to Galambos' concerns. "But I don't agree the way to get there is without [giving people] the access they need to get to work and school...We don't solve a problem by creating a crisis."
Gwinnett County Chairman Charles Bannister, who noted that he "didn't have a dog in this fight," said to force MARTA to enact such drastic cuts in service would be "disastrous" to those who rely on its trains and buses to travel to work and school.
When the vote was taken, three board members voted "nay" Buford City Commission Chairman Phillip Beard, Canton Mayor Gene Hobgood, and Galambos.
MARTA General Manager Bev Scott said the commission's effort to step in and fund the agency showed "true leadership." She stressed that the time for new transportation funding on the state, regional and local level is "long overdue."
"We don't like being in this situation," she said to a bank of reporters after the meeting. "But we're in a crisis."
Scott said the agency had thoroughly discussed the "preventative maintenance" issue with federal officials. Olens said the transit agency was in the process of developing a list of projects MARTA will fund.
Gov. Sonny Perdue must authorize how stimulus funds are spent. A Perdue spokesman tells the AJC's Ariel Hart the governor will probably approve of the agreement. Perdue's been quoted as saying he agrees with how the ARC offered assistance to MARTA.
(Photo by Joeff Davis)
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