With area's transit fragmented, can state help?

That’s the message legislators and transit officials heard Thursday as they met to consider what to do.

“We’ve permitted the creation of multiple systems,” said MARTA CEO Beverly Scott, who is a member of the commission and delivered a briefing on MARTA. That system operates in Fulton and DeKalb counties. Other counties have their own systems.

A new law this year created the Transit Governance Study Commission and charged it with suggesting legislation to improve matters. That could include folding transit agencies together into one, or under one umbrella, and even giving it state operating funds -- or not. Committee members said everything is on the table.

“There are many layers to this that have got to be peeled back,” said the commission’s chairwoman, Rep. Donna Sheldon, R-Dacula, who called Thursday's meeting a "great foundation." The commission must deliver a preliminary report by December. Sheldon emphasized the word “preliminary.”

The gloomiest news was financial. Scott pointed out that it was unlikely the region would get crucial federal funding for any major new transit project while it was scrambling to maintain what it’s already got. “It’s not going to happen,” she said.

In spite of service cuts already made, MARTA this year is plugging a $69 million deficit by pulling from reserves, and it expects to completely run through its reserves in the fiscal year 2013. A worse fate awaits Xpress commuter buses. The Georgia Regional Transportation Authority currently expects it will be completely out of operating funds to run them by the end of the next fiscal year. Without new funding, the bus program would have to shut down.

Kirk Fjelstul, a deputy director at GRTA, told the commission about GRTA’s role in running the Xpress buses and helping local governments incubate smaller startup transit systems. But the biggest of those he mentioned, C-Tran, shut down completely this year, as Clayton County leaders said it was too expensive and not a county responsibility.

Elsewhere, Cobb County is preparing its first transit service cuts Nov. 1, said Cobb Department of Transportation Director Faye DiMassimo, of less than 5 percent. Gwinnett already cut 18 percent to 20 percent of service in 2009, said Gwinnett Transportation Director Brian Allen.

Cherokee County’s director of community services, Jackie McMorris, said that county hadn’t cut its transit service yet. It runs a much smaller service.

Scott still said she felt optimistic. “All we've got to do is take the steps to take the real concrete actions that pull us together,” she told the commission.

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