MARTA says it’s open to Atlanta expansion program audit

MARTA initially blasted the proposal

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

Days after attacking the Atlanta City Council for requesting an audit of transit spending, MARTA says it will agree to an audit.

The council unanimously requested an audit of the More MARTA Atlanta transit expansion program. It wants detailed information on why MARTA has spent about half the proceeds of a voter-approved sales tax on bus operations instead of transit construction. It also wants information on contracts, capital spending and other information related to MARTA’s $2.7 billion Atlanta expansion plan.

On Tuesday, MARTA called the audit request “disappointing and disingenuous” and said the council was “playing politics.” It said such an audit would require it to pause work on most projects and told the council to “get out of the way and let MARTA deliver the projects.”

But agency officials struck a more conciliatory tone Thursday at a meeting of the MARTA board of directors’ audit committee. Board Chairman Thomas Worthy said MARTA should agree to an audit and split the cost with the city. And CEO Collie Greenwood said MARTA would provide the council “whatever it is they need to feel satisfied.”

“We are an audit-friendly environment. We believe in audits,” Greenwood said. “We run our business that way on a regular basis.”

The audit request follows a decision by MARTA and Mayor Andre Dickens to prioritize nine projects for funding from the half-penny sales tax Atlanta voters approved in 2016. That leaves other projects without funding until after 2035.

The move comes amid a revenue shortfall in the More MARTA program. It also follows a disclosure in May that MARTA had spent more than half of sales tax proceeds to date on enhanced bus service in Atlanta — leaving less money for building new transit lines.

The council’s transportation committee has been grilling MARTA on the finances of the expansion program for months. On Monday the council unanimously requested an audit, which council members said is needed to ensure taxpayers are getting their money’s worth and to restore trust in MARTA.

MARTA initially blasted the proposal. Greenwood told the audit committee he was disappointed by the way the audit request came to MARTA.

“We believed in good faith we were providing answers to their questions,” he said. “If they were insufficient, then, by all means, pick up the phone. Pay a visit.”

But now that the council has requested a formal audit, “we’ll simply capitulate to that,” Greenwood said.

It remains to be seen exactly how an audit will be conducted. Council members asked the city finance department to pay for and conduct the review “to ensure the integrity of the audit.”

Worthy suggested a different arrangement: MARTA and Atlanta would split the cost of hiring an independent contractor neither had used in the past. He said MARTA is “more than happy to participate in any audit that the mayor and his team may want to do.”

Dickens’ office has declined to comment on the audit proposal. Council members say his administration participated in drafting the resolution calling for the audit.

On Friday, Council President Doug Shipman said the audit is needed to provide clarity on “where More MARTA has spent money and what we can expect going forward.” He said the audit should focus on the finances and management of the program.

“I’m glad the board appears supportive of a More MARTA audit,” Shipman said. “I look forward to specifics.”