Whatever happened to ... MARTA selling munchies?

It's been nearly a year since the state greenlighted MARTA vending food and drink in its stations as a way for the cash-strapped transit agency to scare up some dollars without troubling the state budget.

So, where's the beef?  Or the coffee, or anything?

Still several months away, MARTA officials say.

MARTA was given the OK to start laying groundwork for the sales on May 6, 2009, when Gov. Sonny Perdue signed a bill to allow eating and drinking in stations.  The law went into effect on July 1.

"We haven’t gone down this road before and we don’t have a lot of references," said Denise Whitfield, MARTA's first manager of retail development and concessions planning, hired in January.  "Most of the other transit agencies that have attempted this have encouraged us to be conservative and really understand our market before we get out there. We really want to get it right the first time."

MARTA officials surveyed riders to see what people would buy most: bottled water, juice, fresh fruit, candy, snacks, pop -- in that order. Plus, 55 percent wanted coffee or tea.

The agency got board approvals, and is making sure electrical needs are taken care of and federal guidelines are followed in its 38 stations.  Officials are going through a mandatory process for bidding out proposals, which takes time, according to Whitfield and MARTA's assistant general manager for planning, Cheryl King.

The program will be only in train stations, since MARTA does not own the land around its bus stops.  It will not allow eating or drinking on trains or buses.  Goodies must be sealed up before boarding.

Machines selling drinks -- the first of three phases in the program -- should be up and running sometime between August and December, Whitfield and King said. Not too long after that, there should be machines vending DVDs.

After that comes Phase 2, human vendors for food and drink. Last will come retail, perhaps jewelry carts. MARTA still hasn't settled on the exact products.  Whitfield said it could include "everything from women’s accessories [to] local artists, books, sunglasses."

MARTA received responses from potential drink vendors last week.  It originally expected responses from DVD vendors by March 31, but has extended the deadline. (King and Whitfield wouldn't say whether MARTA got any responses.)

It's difficult to determine how much MARTA will make from the program, though there is no way the agency can lose money, Whitfield said.  Different markets make it hard to compare, she said, but the Chicago Transit Authority makes about $350,000 a year from vending, according to a consultant report.  In its solicitation to vendors, MARTA estimated that its start-up costs would be $248,000.

The money will be a pittance compared with the $120 million shortfall the agency is facing. MARTA's operations are funded partly by a sales tax levied in Fulton and DeKalb counties, and those revenues have taken a hit in the recession.

Last year MARTA asked the state to lift a restriction on how it uses its money so it could access capital reserves in order to fund operations, but the measure became a political football and died.  MARTA avoided drastic cuts by using federal stimulus funds.  This year there is no more stimulus, so it is contemplating service cuts of up to 30 percent, and laying off 1,000 employees.

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