Council members grill MARTA over Atlanta expansion plans

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

City Council members grilled MARTA’s chief executive about its Atlanta expansion Wednesday as the agency finalizes plans to address a major budget shortfall.

CEO Collie Greenwood said MARTA is close to finalizing a revised list of Atlanta expansion projects that takes into account rising costs and other factors that have made its original $2.7 billion, 17-project plan unrealistic. He said the agency has tentatively prepared a list of seven projects it believes it can realistically pursue, given new financial realities.

Greenwood did not reveal the list Wednesday. But he pledged to present the revised project list to the council’s Transportation Committee in March. That timeline didn’t satisfy council members who are getting an earful from constituents who are frustrated that MARTA hasn’t completed any expansion projects more than six years after voters approved funding for the plan.

“All of us have residents who have, whether they voted for the More MARTA tax or not, expect to have projects delivered,” Councilman Amir Farokhi, chairman of the Transportation Committee, told Greenwood on Wednesday.

Council members summoned Greenwood to the Transportation Committee after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported recently that MARTA’s city expansion plans could face a budget gap of more than $1 billion.

The figure came from Josh Rowan, the former MARTA deputy general manager who oversaw the agency’s capital expansion programs until he was fired without cause earlier this month.

MARTA has said the $1 billion shortfall is one possible outcome based on a “certain set of assumptions” in a financial model being developed by a consultant. The agency has said the model is still under development, and Greenwood told council members it may not be finalized before MARTA’s next scheduled committee briefing in March.

Comments like that left some council members frustrated about a lack of solid information about the financial status of the expansion program.

“The part that really gets me is the waning trust that something’s going to get done in a timely manner,” Farokhi said.

In 2016, Atlanta voters approved a half-penny sales tax to pay for a transit expansion. Two years later, MARTA produced a list of 17 projects the money would pay for. In 2019, it released a tentative construction timeline.

But progress on those projects has been slow. MARTA is about to begin construction of the Summerhill bus rapid transit line. It has approved plans for another rapid bus line along Campbellton Road and for an extension of the Atlanta Streetcar. And it is moving forward with a renovation of Five Points station.

But council members made it clear they want to see more progress.

Greenwood said progress has been slow because major transit projects are complicated. He said MARTA didn’t finalize an agreement for the expansion with Atlanta until 2020, but it has made substantial progress since then.

In coming weeks, Greenwood expects to finalize a revised list of seven projects divided into two priority tiers. The remaining projects likely will not move forward for now.

Among the projects that likely will make the cut are the Summerhill and Campbellton rapid bus lines, the Cleveland/Metropolitan arterial rapid transit line and renovations at the Five Points and Bankhead stations.

Greenwood said MARTA has always known it didn’t have enough money to do all the transit projects city residents wanted. It started with a list of 70 potential projects before whittling it down to the original list of 17.

Greenwood said MARTA continues to negotiate with Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens’ office about a new project list. He said those negotiations are “on the 99-yard line.”