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MARTA tries to fix capital program ahead of Atlanta expansion

MARTA is scrambling to improve oversight of capital projects as it prepares for its biggest construction effort in a generation, documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News show.

Independent and internal reports on the agency’s capital program found poor monitoring of construction projects, inadequate staffing and an inability to ensure project costs are accurate. The reports also found MARTA could be paying for work without any guarantee it will be done.

>> LEARN MORE: See MARTA’s detailed response to the internal review findings

The reports obtained by the news organizations date to 2015, 2016 and 2017. MARTA says it has addressed nearly all the problems as it prepares for a $2.5 billion expansion in Atlanta and for possible expansions in FultonGwinnettCobb and DeKalb counties. It plans to address the remaining issues in the next six months.

“We are very fiscally responsible within this organization, and we vet things to the Nth degree,” said David Springstead, MARTA’s assistant general manager of capital programs and development.

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But experts who reviewed the reports said they raise troubling questions.

“I’m not saying that there is fraud at all, but the possibility for that – it seems like a lack of oversight,” said Joseph Hacker, a transportation planning expert at Georgia State University.

MARTA hasn’t seen a major building boom since it completed construction of its original rail network in 2000. In the years that followed, it fended off criticism that it was inefficient and bloated, especially from suburbs hostile to public transportation.

In recent years its financial standing and reputation have improved, as have its prospects for expansion. Clayton County voters agreed to join MARTA in 2014, and Atlanta voters approved a half-penny sales tax for a transit expansion two years ago.

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signs House Bill 930 at the Georgia State Capitol Thursday. The law allows 13 local counties to raise sales taxes for mass transit, if their voters consent. Gwinnett and Fulton counties already are planning votes. DeKalb and Cobb could be next. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

In May, Gov. Nathan Deal signed legislation that could pave the way for transit expansion in 13 metro Atlanta counties. Gwinnett has scheduled a vote on joining MARTA next March. Other counties also may beef up their transit services.

As its prospects for expansion improved, MARTA sought an independent assessment of its ability to manage capital projects.

The first report, completed in 2015, found dozens of problems, including inadequate staffing, work orders without clear deadlines and sloppy paperwork that led to schedule delays and cost overruns.

In one case, MARTA paid a consultant 28 percent more than the standard labor cap of $125 an hour with “no real justification for the rate increase,” the report found. It also found a “lack of accountability and commitment to on-time, on-budget practices.”

“The overall process for scoping, screening and planning of capital projects is broken, and planning and projection information is insufficient relevant to costs, budget, scope of work and resources,” the report said.

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The report recommended more than 40 improvements, including filling vacant positions, developing formal oversight procedures and reorganizing the capital improvement program.

A year later, the same independent analyst found MARTA had implemented just 40 percent of its recommendations. And last year MARTA followed up with an internal audit, which found more progress, but plenty of work left to do.

Among other things, it found the agency has “no way to ensure that the project costs and project forecasts are accurate and/or complete.” And it found “MARTA could potentially be paying for a project and not receiving the appropriate and/or required deliverable for that project.”

A series of reports found serious problems with MARTA’s capital improvement program. The agency says it’s fixing the problems. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Hacker, the GSU expert, said the reports show a capital improvement program splintered into units that monitor projects inconsistently and ineffectively.

“You have 26 different units, you have project managers who are not trained cohesively, you don’t have standardized procedures for forecasting,” Hacker said. “This is just a recipe for chaos.”

Jamison Dague, director of infrastructure studies at the Citizens Budget Commission, a New York-based watchdog and research group, also reviewed the MARTA reports. He said MARTA isn’t the only agency that struggles to stay on top of construction projects.

“If you look at projects across the country, even across the world, particularly these large mega-projects with transit and transportation, there is a tendency to underestimate the cost and the schedule,” Dague said.

MARTA’s Springstead said the agency has made substantial progress since last year’s report. He said it’s focused on ensuring its largest projects are running well but will standardize monitoring of all projects.

Springstead said MARTA sought the assessments to ensure its capital program works well as it prepares for future expansions. He said all problems should be addressed in coming months, and taxpayers can be confident their money is well spent.

“We’re basically, in my opinion, fine tuning right now,” he said.

Channel 2 Action News’ Richard Belcher and Terah Boyd contributed to this report

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