Legislature not likely to do much for transit

For metro Atlanta transit passengers and drivers, hopes are low that the Legislature will offer much help funding additional rides or roads when it comes into session in January.

The most lawmakers might do for metro transportation is to stave off collapse of the Xpress commuter bus service. Xpress is currently scheduled to go bankrupt and shut down in summer 2013.

MARTA, which is running low on reserves and has long asked in vain for operations funding, isn’t likely to get any from the state this year either, state leaders told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Some passengers said both services should be funded.

“They need to,” said Vanchesta Lewis, 27, who rides both on her daily commute from Stockbridge to Atlanta. “It’s very important. It saves us on gas.” Not only would the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority’s failure put her back in her car, adding to congestion, but the cost of driving means “that, and something else isn’t going to get paid.”

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It’s a bleak epilogue to an era that focused on expansion, when the Legislature pushed to give metro Atlantans the chance to approve $7 billion in new roads and transit service with the T-SPLOST, a 10-year, 1 percent sales tax. Last year, as the region waited for the referendum day, the Legislature also set aside $300 million in existing gas taxes for toll lanes along I-75 and I-575 in Cobb and Cherokee counties.

Now there’s a different mood.

The T-SPLOST, which failed in metro Atlanta, drained lawmakers’ energy and ideas on transportation, and they are facing $550 million in state budget cuts.

“Some may be asking, ‘Where is Plan B,’ especially for the nine (out of 12) regions that didn’t pass the T-SPLOST,” Josh Waller, the state Department of Transportation’s lobbyist, told the DOT board in a legislative briefing. “But I think for us this next session’s going to be about discussion.”

Propping up transit, or not

GRTA, which runs Xpress, has run out of the federal startup grants that kept the service going after it began in 2004. For four years, the state has put in money to keep it operating, at first small extra amounts from GRTA, then last year $5.4 million specially dedicated by the Legislature to Xpress. The service provides about 9,000 rush-hour rides a day, typically long-haul commutes from the suburbs to MARTA and jobs in Atlanta, and now faces dissolution.

Since the T-SPLOST has failed, the state must decide whether to take on the service’s operations as a regular burden.

Gov. Nathan Deal, cutting the state budget elsewhere, in December came just short of saying he’d propose funding Xpress.

“I’m not at the point of being able to say that affirmatively at this point; it is one of the issues we are looking at,” Deal said. However, he said of bus service in general, “I think the issue of having a good and workable bus system is going to continue to have greater importance. And I think there will be support for that. It is going to require some additional funding in order to take up some of the slack there.”

That’s not likely for MARTA, however. MARTA — funded by fares, a sales tax levied in Fulton and DeKalb counties, and federal funds — is running through its reserves. It has cut back service and raised passenger fares.

MARTA has asked for state funding before, arguing that it is rare for an agency of its size to receive no state funding for operations. But under new CEO Keith Parker, MARTA will work on its image before asking for state money.

In any case, the state isn’t offering.

“I think we have so many demands on our current state dollars that we’re going to have to keep them within the traditional systems,” Deal said recently.

Parker did say, however, that this session MARTA will attempt to prevent a restriction on its finances from being reimposed. The restriction, which limits the amount of its sales tax money MARTA can spend on operations as opposed to capital projects, was lifted by the T-SPLOST law and is scheduled to resume in 2013.

Plan B

Mostly, what state elected officials seem to feel is transportation fatigue, or bafflement. Few are even talking about pushing new funding or the formation of a regional mass transit agency. Asked what they might support next, Deal, House Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Roberts, Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jeff Mullis and House Speaker David Ralston each said they were waiting to hear others’ ideas.

Deal told the AJC this fall that he didn’t expect to propose new funding legislation soon, and he expected small groups of counties coming together voluntarily may be the future of transit expansion. In December, he added, “I have not heard or seen anything to indicate that those kinds of coalitions have actually come together yet.”

Ralston told the AJC that others’ idea to divert a piece of gas tax money that goes to the state’s general fund, as much as $190 million per year, into new transportation funding was problematic because the state budget is already lean.

“I’m not ruling it in, let’s say that,” Ralston said. “We have to look at different ideas. That’s one of the different ideas that’s out there. There’s a lot of concern about it, frankly, though.”

There is new regional funding expected in the three regions of Georgia where the T-SPLOST passed. But there, some detractors have demanded changes or repeal.

Roberts, the transportation committee chairman, said no.

“For those of you who want to repeal it, I’m telling you today, that’s not going to happen,” Roberts told a crowd of legislators and state officials in December.

DOT agenda

The state Department of Transportation in December set its own legislative agenda.

It will attempt to get the Legislature to ease rules on how DOT can award road contracts. Right now, the agency can award regular road contracts only by low dollar bid. It wants more flexibility in how it awards “design-build” contracts. Under “design-build,” the department makes road designers and builders work together in teams, hoping that the cooperation can lead to innovations in the design. Even if it costs a bit more to build at the outset, they hope the innovations could produce a more efficient or better project.

Under legislation DOT is hoping for, that innovation could comprise perhaps 15 percent to 25 percent of the criteria for winning a project, DOT’s Waller said. The other 80 or so percent would still be based on low bid.

DOT also expects to ask the Legislature to exempt interstate highways and freight routes from a formula that requires most of the state’s road money to be spread evenly in political districts throughout the state, rather than where congestion is worst.

The idea already ran into concern from rural DOT board members.

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