Atlanta Forward/Another View: Transit solution vital to Georgia

My stewardship as chairman of MARTA’s board of directors comes as we’re facing severe threats to the survival of quality transit services that benefit metro Atlanta and all of Georgia.

Unless our elected officials take prudent action during this year’s legislative session, we will have compromised the proven ability of MARTA and our transit partners around the state to serve millions of passengers, to reduce traffic gridlock, to maintain air quality standards and to attract much-needed economic growth.

Like other businesses and households, MARTA has been hit hard by the recession. The sales taxes collected in Fulton and DeKalb counties and the city of Atlanta that provide most of the funding for MARTA have plunged dramatically. MARTA has responded aggressively by raising fares, cutting service and tapping reserves. Despite those steps, MARTA faces a deficit of at least $100 million.

MARTA’s financial situation isn’t unique. Clayton County is eliminating its popular C-Tran bus service for lack of money. Other metro Atlanta transit systems may lose millions in expiring federal subsidies that initially supported their operations.

Because the stakes are so high, MARTA is joining other transit providers to support overarching transportation legislation in the General Assembly that achieves the following objectives:

● Funding flexibility for transit providers to pay for capital improvements as well as operating costs for current and future projects.

● Removing outdated restrictions on DeKalb, Fulton and the city of Atlanta on the 1-cent sales tax now dedicated to funding MARTA.

● Approval of a voter referendum allowing regions to levy a joint transportation sales tax by no later than March 2011.

● A 20-year funding horizon enabling Georgia to successfully compete for long-term federal transportation grants and loans.

● Collaboration of regional transportation agencies to ensure funding equity for all future projects.

In addition, MARTA will work cooperatively with the state to address the crisis of our widening budget gap.

For too long, our leaders have embraced an antiquated mind-set that has viewed transit as a stepchild to roads, highways and bridges, which were deemed more worthy of state funding and support. We are hopeful the transportation funding proposal Gov. Sonny Perdue announced last week will strengthen Georgia’s ability to grow and remain competitive with our neighbors in North Carolina, Tennessee and Florida, for example, who are investing in transit to re-position themselves as economic dynamos of the Southeast.

Still, more robust and immediate action on transit funding in Georgia is desperately needed.

It’s a tough time to talk about investing in transit, considering the state of our economy and dwindling regional and state resources. But failure to invest in transit constitutes a disinvestment in our future we can no longer afford.

Michael W. Tyler is a law firm partner and chairman of the MARTA board.