Atlanta streetcar moves forward despite MARTA funding woes

Board member Jim Durrett warned that if the Legislature doesn't permanently lift its requirement that MARTA spend half of  the local sales tax money it receives -- its primary funding source -- on capital improvements instead of operations, then MARTA could be forced to "substantially reduce" service after 2013.

Because of the economic downturn, the Legislature had suspended the regulation from 2010 through 2013. Durrett said if restored, the rule will continue to "seriously restrict the authority's necessary flexibility to effectively manage its finances."

State Sen. Doug Stoner, D-Smyrna,  said at a meeting last month of the Legislature's MARTA oversight committee, that the nearly four-decade-old regulation on MARTA spending should be lifted. "No other transit system in the country has this requirement dictating how it uses its money -- we don't require it of Gwinnett or of Cobb," Stoner said.  "I've never heard any good justification why we have this rule. It is local money. It is not state dollars. Why shouldn't the local folks be able to make those decisions?"

The board on Monday also withdrew the ability of the MARTA general manger to award professional or consulting contracts up to $100,000 without board approval, which state Rep. Mike Jacobs, who head the joint state senate and house MARTA oversight committee, is currently trying to legislate. The board ordered that it receive quarterly reports on professional and consulting contracts that were previously awarded without board oversight.

On Monday, the board awarded a $46.6 million contract -- paid for by a federal grant -- to URS Energy & Construction Inc. to design and build a streetcar to link the tourist destinations of Centennial Olympic Park and the King Center, which is being billed as an economic development project.

The project estimated now to cost about $94 million is scheduled for completion in 2013. Tom Weyandt, an adviser to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed on transportation, said the project won't simply ferry tourists but will act as a feeder to MARTA rail and eventually to the Atlanta Beltline, now being developed. He contended it would spur housing, retail and office development in its corridor, which includes Auburn and Edgewood avenues.

"The developers can see there are rails in the ground and know ...  (the transit)  is not going to go away," he said. "It will be the first phase of what we hope will be a very extensive street car development downtown in the long term."

The board also awarded a $16 million contract to Apollo Video Technology, to install surveillance cameras in its approximately 1,000 rail cars, buses and para-transit vehicles, which the agency hopes will act as a crime deterrent and make riders feel safer.

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